No MBA mumbo-jumbo, just stuff that's worked through 30 years of team-building in business and the military.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Old Sergeant's Wisdom: Advice for Leaders

The Army puts newly-minted young second lieutenants in charge of platoons; that's the first leadership assignment these school-trained but inexperienced officers have. There are a lot of pitfalls out there for fledgling leaders, though, and the beauty of that first assignment is each platoon has a senior, experienced sergeant who can mentor these young officers. If you're smart, you listen, because rough as they can be, these old sergeants know a lot about leadership.

I was reminiscing about my days as a lieutenant, and marveled at the rough-hewn wisdom my sergeants passed on. A few examples:

- "Try not to suck." This is the Army version of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors ("First, do no harm.") It's a pointed reminder that when you're a leader, your team bears the consequences of your choices. Sometimes no action is better than bad action.
- "Life gets tougher when you're stupid." There are very few situations your team can get into that you can't make worse by doing something dumb. Study the problem, get advice, think things through, and then decide.
- "Don't talk when you're full of s**t." Every one of us has had a boss that couldn't follow this bit of advice. The implications are obvious.
- "If you're gonna spend us, buy something good." In the Army, some objectives require spending human lives, but in every organization you can use people up. Never, ever, demand from your people more than the benefit is worth.
- "You're not as smart as you think you are, but you're probably not as dumb as I think you are either." Keeping a realistic perspective on yourself is tough, but important. It's also important to have a sense of how others perceive you. Reality is somewhere in the gap.

I thought it wouldn't hurt to give you a few chuckles at my expense - you can imagine what I might have done to prompt this kind of feedback. But don't miss the nuggets of wisdom in there. Old sergeants are pretty smart; the dumb ones don't make it that far.

[Note: It isn't fair of me to let you assume the crusty old sergeants I had all those years ago represent today's professional NCO. In response to a more complex mission, today's NCOs are bright, competent, and considerably more polished than old-school sergeants.]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Your Health is a Leadership Issue

We like to think how we maintain our bodies are our own private concern, but health is a leadership issue. Think of the outcomes of poor health habits:

- less energy, which means less gets done, and you look like you don't care.
- your brain functions slower, so you take longer to decide and tend not to think in depth or make connections as readily.
- your moods tend to swing, which makes you unpredictable to your team. That in turn causes them to have to try to read you.
- when you don't feel good, your focus centers on yourself.

Admit it, when your body is complaining, it captures your attention and tends to drown out what goes on around you. Sure, Steve Jobs led effectively when he was sick, but not as effectively as when he wasn't.

I'm not talking about weight. Heavy people can be healthy, and a lot of skinny folks aren't. I'm talking about your body's systems working well. You know what good health feels like, and you know when you don't have it.

Better health is just a few choices away: enough sleep, decent nutrition, 30 minutes of walking. You need to do it to be at your best as a leader.

Carrots and Sticks are for Donkeys

One of the artifacts of the industrial age is that most leaders don't have a clue how to motivate. The focus on productivity led us to manage people like things, which is why we call them human resources instead of people.

But carrots and sticks are for donkeys. Unless you thing your team is a bunch of asses, you need to recognize that the sticks are really discipline, and the carrots have only a momentary effect.

Real motivation comes from giving people what they really want and need;
1. To know the work matters. No one will get excited about making rich people richer. They will find fulfillment in knowing their service or product makes lives better.
2. To know that their work matters. Everyone needs to know that someone they see every day is happier and better off because they came to work.
3. To know that they matter. Not as a human resource, but as a human being. People want to be the same people they are at work as in the rest of their lives. If you don't know who that is, you make them feel like anonymous numbers.

Your team won't know any of these things if you don't tell them. And they won't believe them if you don't live like they're true. Your first action item: go find those people who make you personally happier and better off, tell them how, and say thank you. That will motivate.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Do You Like People?

I know an executive who says, "I had the perfect job until I sold something and had a customer. Then I had to make it, so I hired some employees, and it hasn't been fun since."

We laugh, but the truth is, that guy doesn't like people. He sees them as interruptions. He thinks his real job is the processes in his business.

Is that you? Would you rather stay in your office, and keep people at arm's length with e-mail? Are you happier with your papers and computer screen and whiteboard and solitary thoughts? Do you resent phone calls and knocks on the door?

You can't lead if you don't like people. I mean that: if I just described you, you owe it to yourself to find a different job. You're probably a skilled administrator, or maybe an ace technician - nothing wrong with either of those. But people deserve leaders who pay attention to them.

Remember, leadership involves movement, leading people from where they are to somewhere different. If you only want them along because you need them to achieve your own ends, you're a user, not a leader. There's an ethical dimension here that requires you not to betray their trust, so you need to be trying to better things for them. And there's the practical matter that they'll figure out your motives pretty quickly and stop following anyway.

Good leaders laugh when they're with people, and they make people laugh. If that doesn't sound like you, think about it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking the Drama Out Of the Workplace

It happens all the time: A team member brings a complaint about someone else, or maybe a couple of employees are squabbling and folks are picking sides. I've been reading about workplace drama lately, and living a little of it, and it reminds me how much I hate it.

So what do you do?

You could say your hands are tied, that your boss or organizational policy won't let you do anything else. But then you sound helpless and they won't see you as having any more horsepower than they do.

You could join in the complaining or choose a side, but then you're just fanning the flames. That makes it likely there will be more time wasted, yours included.

You could tell the team member to toughen up, and remind him that you don't pay him to like folks, just to get work done. That's a good way to ensure that these things happen behind your back and you never get a chance to stop the productivity loss.

You could ignore the whole thing, just let things slide, and watch your workplace become Peyton Place.

You could tell the employee you'll handle it, and then go fix things with the other person. That will work, but will make it necessary for you to fix every occurrence, every time.

My preference: I tell my griping team members I don't like talking about people, but that I'm willing to talk with them. Then I get the two parties face to face, let them talk and I listen. Once that happens, the solutions usually aren't rocket science.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Do You Make Your People Better?

There are a small handful of professions, things like pilot or surgeon, where the purpose of the team is to make the guy leading it perform better. For most of us, it's the other way around. We're worth what they pay us only to the extent that our organizations get more from our teams.

It's worth asking yourself if that's true. If it is, you should be able to point to what it is that your team does better with you around. Some good questions:

What did my people get done today that they couldn't or wouldn't have done if I weren't here?

Is my team any different now than when I took over?

Does my individual work result in some advantage for the organization?

Ideally you can point to something specific, like individual productivity is up 10% because I do this, or I save each producer an hour a day by doing that. Ideally you can express in dollars the difference you make, and ideally that amount is more than you cost.

Most of the time it's not that clear cut, but it's still worth thinking about. Your gut will tell you, after a little thought, if you were a smart buy for your organization. The good news is, if you feel like maybe you weren't, you can change that. After all, few things feel as good as being worth what you're paid.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Leadership vs. Supervision

How do you know if you're a leader? If someone is following. Laugh, but that's the truest measurement of leadership.

To truly lead, you need to be going someplace and you need to take people with you. If you're going someplace alone, that's exploration. If you're in charge of people but leaving them where they are, that's supervision.

Supervision is the day-to-day oversight of people. It's making sure they come to work, making sure they do what they're supposed to, making sure they have what they need. Supervision involves time cards and vacations and breaks and the order work gets done.

Leadership results in movement, change. A leader sees a better place in terms of what can be and how it can be done. Leaders see the vision, communicate it, and inspire and enable others to get there.

Often you will have to both lead and supervise, but keep the functions clear in your mind. You can lead far more people than you can supervise. I supervise 14, which is way too many. I lead a couple hundred.

If you do both, make sure you don't get bogged down in supervision. That's important too, but leadership is where the magic happens.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Leadership is Selfless Service

Daniel Boone was more than a folk-hero. He was an amazingly effective leader, one who illustrates a fundamental reality of leadership: it has to be for the team.

Daniel Boone built a successful life in business and in the military. He made his money with honest sweat. But he didn't make it by using his followers. Boone's moments of great leadership were for the benefit of those he led, in the case of taking groups of settlers into the wilderness, or in the service of a greater ideal, such as when he led military expeditions in defense of the frontier settlements,

If you're a ladder-climber, and we all have some of that in us, drum this into your thick skull: You have to lead for the team. Your motivations and actions all have to be focused on making them more effective and making their lives better.

There are two reasons for that. The first one is the practical one that as soon as they sense you're using them for your own benefit, you'll lose them. Even if they don't quit the job, they'll quit following you beyond the letter of what they have to do.

The second reason is ethical: That's a mis-use of the resource. Your organization doesn't pay for the team so it can serve you, and it didn't make you the leader so you can build an empire. Using your people to further your career isn't a lot different than stealing.

Go ahead and work on that career; nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to leadership, your career and your team will be best served if you demonstrate your capacity for selfless service. Believe me, that will stand out like a beacon to your bosses.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Just Start Shoveling

Planning is a key skill for leaders - it's one of those competencies you just have to have. In most cases a good plan will position you to get things done efficiently and effectively. It will also help you organize what and how you communicate.

But sometimes planning isn't particularly helpful. Some jobs are like shoveling snow: You just have to pick up the shovel and get to it.

Some instances when you may want to skip the planning step:
- When what is needed is obvious to everyone.
- When the job is labor -intensive and time is short.
- When there is no precedent. In those cases doing is often a more effective way to figure things out than thinking. Be sure to capture what you learn along the way.

The bottom line: If planning is going to cost you as much (in time, dollars, resources, opportunity) as it will gain you, skip it.

By the way, if you don't need to plan, it will do you and your team a lot of good if you pick up a shovel and start throwing snow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Your Team Doesn't Want What You Want

If you haven't already figured it out, I'm going to let you in on a little leadership secret: Your team doesn't share your goals.

That's different than saying your team is against your goals, or won't work toward your goals, or doesn't have goals. In fact, that's the land-mine for leaders - every member on your team has individual goals. You will succeed to the extent that you can align their goals with your personal and organizational goals.

So you need to ask, why is this team member here? What is he or she after? Maybe she needs a paycheck, but her passion is really her home and family. Maybe he's learning a skill so he can start his own business someday. Maybe he wants your job. If you don't know, chances are you won't motivate.

Because there are some goals we all have sometimes that inhibit performance, like the desire to have the day go smoothly or to get out on time. The desire to avoid conflict and to evade crises. To overcome those human tendencies we have to be able to tap back into what drives our people. And they aren't driven by numbers on the quarterly P&L statement, or a desire to see you in a corner office.

Besides, they wouldn't be worth much if they didn't have some aspirations of their own. We all know some people who drift through life without goals; they don't accomplish much.

So stop looking at your people through the lens of your own values and goals. Get to know them, and find out what the job really means to them. Then you can get the behaviors you want by giving them the outcomes they will value.

Monday, September 26, 2011

If It's Stupid But It Works . . .

Somewhere in my early military development there was a mentor who I can no longer name who liked to say, "If it's stupid but it works, it's not stupid."

That statement captured perfectly for me the reality that in combat operations, the thing that matters most is effectiveness. The final judgement of a tactic or maneuver would be whether or not we won.

There's a strong leadership application here. We lead people, and people are infinitely variable. Although they seem to fit into types, in reality no two are alike. What that means is no two will respond the same way, no two are motivated by exactly the same things, so the perfect leadership of each person will be unique.

That means the rules are really just guidelines. Everything the MBAs tell you about how to work with people is true for most of them, but not all. And there's no quick guide for picking out which is which.

Here's the take-away for leaders: There are no style points for what we do. There isn't a scoreboard either. What matters is that your leadership effectively gets your team to perform. So if you feel like you need to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, try it.

If it seems like it will work, give longer breaks. Let employees chat more. Let them work in the lounge instead of at their desks. Let them tinker with that idea they had on company time. By current standards, those things and a lot of others are stupid. But no-one knows your people like you do. And stupid starts looking pretty smart when it gets the job done.

Manage Resources, Lead People

You can't manage people. Or at least you shouldn't.

Management involves choosing how to use stuff, how to get the best result from an expenditure. Management is guiding day-to-day operations so that the work that gets done stays within the cost-benefit parameters your organization has decided are necessary. We manage stuff - time, money, processes, demand, expectations.

The problem with managing people (if that's even possible) is that managing is by definition manipulative and controlling. It denies the complexity of aspiration and motivation that makes people individuals. It suggests spending, using up, rather than developing.

People need to be led. People need to see the vision, they need to understand the context for the work, they need to see significance and feel fulfillment. They won't get any of those things if you think your job is to manage them.

That means the people part of your job requires you to be face to face. Schedules and money and machines can be managed with computers and spreadsheets. People need to be led by example, through relationships, and by teaching, coaching and encouragement.

Some people are natural managers but resist leading. If that's you, either change something or step down.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rule of the Full Garage

There's a simple truth that every home-owner knows: Garages fill up.

Not everyone understands the rule of the full garage, though: You don't solve the problem by adding onto your garage. More space will eventually fill up too.

The same problem exists in your work day. There's a huge time management industry out the trying to help us find more time in our days. But gaining capacity is like trying to fix your garage storage with more storage.

The real solution is in fixing the demand problem. Most garages just have too much stuff. The problem isn't limited storage, the problem is we don't have a good system for throwing old stuff away. Our bad process produces the bad outcome. Add more storage and the same bad process will just fill that up too.

Most of our days are cluttered with junk, too. There are too many things we do that time has passed by, that technology has made unnecessary, or that we can easily delegate. Fortunately, the three steps indicated by the rule of the full garage can help us with our time.

1. Keep what's useful, discard what isn't. Don't try to imagine what might be useful someday, because almost everything falls into that category. If you don't expect to use it soon, get rid of it.
2. Organize. A place for everything and everything in its place. In garages, that lets you find things, and keeps them from damage. In your schedule, that keeps things from being overlooked.
3. Maintain. Plan for periodic repeats of steps one and two.

The rule of the full garage offers a simple, easy-to-manage way to more effectively use your time. That has to make you a better leader.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Breaks are Good Leadership

Thank you to those of you who expressed your support for this blog. It's gratifying that there's enough interest to make it worth doing. Now, back to business.

Taking a few days off, from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ as well as from this blog, allowed me to catch my breath and regain some perspective. That's an important thing for leaders to do.

If you don't, here are the bad things that can happen:

1. You lose perspective, which is your ability to tell big things from little ones.

2. You lose effectiveness. Just like any piece of worn gear, you start slipping a little, and you're not as sharp.

3. You lose motivation. The fun goes out of the job, the urgency goes out of the crises -- after all, there's always another crisis, right? -- and your eyes drop from the goal in the distance to the rough road at your feet.

If you do take some time, here are the benefits:

1. You can think about your work in context with the rest of your life. That will make you better at work by helping you remove the tension between your professional and personal lives.

2. You can rest the parts of yourself that get consumed by your job, while exercising something different. I got back into my workouts, and read some fiction.

3. You gain fresh perspective at work. Having reminded yourself why you do it, you're in a better frame of mind to distinguish productivity from activity.

So take your breaks. Unplug for a weekend. Use your vacation time. You'll be a better leader, and your team will be a better team.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Time for This Blog to End?

One key characteristic of seasoned leaders is that, just as they step forward when needed, they step aside when they aren't.

I'm wondering if, with this blog anyway, it's time for me to step aside. I started it with no motive except to pay things forward a little bit. It was my way to give back to the leadership community that nurtured me.

What I have discovered in the past few months is that there are a lot of great folks out there offering excellent material for leaders. At the same time, I find that the demands on my time are such that I have to make some choices where to invest it. Of the things I write, this one seems most redundant in the larger marketplace. For those reasons, I'm trying to decide whether to continue writing this blog.

However, there may be some readers out there who have come to count on Hip Pocket leader for a daily dose of mentoring. I don't know who you are, but if you'd like to weigh in on the decision, please feel free to drop me an e-mail at, or to comment on this post.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Some Leadership Don'ts

There's a lot of great advice out there that tells leaders how to lead. We don't spend as much time pointing out the land-mines. So here are a few things to put on your leadership "To Don't" list.

1. Don't use your position for your own advantage. If you have authority to approve expenses. it's tempting to give yourself a better hotel room or meals. Or you may want to expedite work for someone that you'd like to see socially. Don't do it; even if it never gets out, it compromises your leadership by diluting your motivations.

2. Don't use your power to make others feel smaller. That's a scarcity mentality, the belief that there isn't enough to go around so for you to get what you want, others have to get less. Scarcity thinking is false; it's loser thinking. When you use your position to put others in their place, you really define yourself as a small person, and your current position will be as far as you get.

3. Don't work less hard than your team. If your goal was to work less, you shouldn't have gotten into leadership. Your effort should never, ever be the limiting factor for your team.

4. Don't set an impossible example. No one is going to want to be like you if it means staying at the office until 7:00 at night, crunching through e-mails on Saturday afternoons, and never taking a vacation. Part of leadership is modeling, and one of the things you need to model is how to balance your job with a normal life. Society is built as much at home and in the community as it is in your organization.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways for leaders to mess up, but a lot of them are somehow related to these four. They're common because they're rooted in human nature. So while you're working on becoming a better leader, put these four things off-limits.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Change is a Great Test of Leadership

When I commanded in the Army, I learned a huge lesson in momentum. When you put a whole unit in motion, carrying out a plan, it's extremely difficult to redirect them. Even something as simple as a change in direction is hard to do.

That may be the best test of leadership: Your ability to get your team to change directions quickly. When you need to do that, here's what you're up against.

1. People may not know what to do. They know to do what they're doing now; if you change things up will they know their role then? The Army and sports both use drills, which is practicing a fundamental task over and over until the whole team can do it without thought. Then all that's need is for a leader to call for that action, and the whole team knows its part. Not many other organizations have coached their people that well.

2. People may not understand why. You spent some time telling them why the plan you decided to execute is good; why do you need to change it now? Sometimes you have time to explain, sometimes you don't.

2. People may not buy in. These days we're all about making the team part of the decision process, of giving them ownership. The down side to that is they won't want to change without the same chance to mull their way through and buy in.

So how do you get people who don't know what to do, or why to it, or who don't buy into the need to do it, to turn together and head in a new direction? It all comes down to trust: trust that you know what you're doing, trust that you know what they should be doing, trust that you have their best interest in mind, trust that if you'd had the time you would have involved them in the decision. In essence, to follow you at that moment is a clear statement that they believe you know best.

Bottom line: If your team doesn't trust you, they won't follow you. That's why a quick change of direction is a great test of your effectiveness as a leader.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The First Responsibility of a Leader

Which is more important: To get the job done, or to take care of your people? What's the first responsibility of a leader?

On the one hand, the reason your team exists is to do something. If you're a non-profit, the point is to provide a service. If you're in the military, or a first responder, your missions tend to be immediate and real-world, sometimes even life-and-death. If you're in business, then you're a drag on the organization if you don't somehow help it make money. If you're in government, then society needs somehow to be better for citizens as a result of what your team does.

So there's really no point to you or your team if you don't get the job done.

On the other hand, if you don't look out for your people, no one else will. And if you burn them out or use them up, it won't be long before your team can't do much of anything at all. Besides, the real value in life resides in people, and it isn't right to do something for others at the expense of the people you lead.

So which is your first responsibility? Trick question: The first responsibility of a leader is balance. You have to do both.

A leader needs to know how much is reasonable to expect from his or her team, and when to encourage a little more effort and a little more sacrifice to get your job done. On the other hand, a leader needs to know when to ease up a little, recognizing that getting things done a day or two later will safeguard the team's ability to still be working a year from now.

The task and the team are equally important, so you need to take care of both equally. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would want to do it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Leadership Lesson from 9/11

My own leadership lesson from 9/11: When it's crunch time, leaders act.

On that day, President Bush took immediate steps to secure the country and pursue the terrorists responsible. Mayor Gulianni immediately took charge of the rescue efforts and acted to calm a panicked city. All across the nation, local leaders did what was needed to secure their communities against a very vague threat. I was one of those, working with authorities at the state level to guard nuclear power plants, bio-labs and key infrastructure.

When the world seems to be falling apart, action is vital for a few reasons.

1. It gives people something to do. Idle people fret; active people focus.
2. It gives people hope. Inaction suggests there's nothing that can be done - that's hopelessness.
3. It prevents people from acting independently. If the leader doesn't act, someone will step up to lead, or many people will strike out on their own with uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting efforts.

The risk: To be decisive in times of crisis means you have act before you know everything. The best places to start are gathering information (send people to check, task them with fact-finding) and taking care of people (make sure everyone is OK, and that worries about their families are calmed as well).

Bottom line: The first thing people think when disaster strikes is "What do we do?" And the first place they look is to the leader.

Friday, September 9, 2011

When Counseling Doesn't Work

We've been talking all week about employee counseling, which is that conversation or conversations that you need to have to get team members back in sync with the group. 

Sometimes, though, counseling doesn't work. You've listened to the team member, you've taken the time to understand his or her views and motivations, you've encouraged change and made some changes of your own. And yet, the undesirable behavior persists.

When that happens, there are really only two reasons.

Maybe the person can't comply. Maybe she can't get to work on time because of a sleep disorder. Maybe he can't eliminate errors because he can't read. Sometimes no matter how encouraging you are, those kind of things remain hidden.

The more likely possibility is that the person chooses not to comply. If that's the case, then you either have not adequately addressed the concerns, or your team member's personal agenda simply isn't compatible with the organization's. He may be after something (power? pay without effort?) that he won't find working with you.

If you feel you've done the best you can to reach an understanding, and there's either something the employee won't put on the table or the employee is willfully not responding, then it's time for formal discipline. Give that first warning, put that first piece of paper in the file. You owe it to the rest of the team.

The good news is, the process of counseling puts you in a very good position to discipline. You should be able to demonstrate that you took every effort to work with the person before resorting to the disciplinary process. Your HR folks will like that a lot.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How to Counsel

There are right and wrong ways to counsel team members.

Remember, the point of counseling is to get everyone back on the same page. It's not punitive, and it has no goal other than restoring the harmony of the team.

So the wrong way is to bring an employee in and talk a lot. A better way is to say just enough so the team member understands why he or she is there, then listen. The less threatening the environment, the less emotional the response, and the better information you'll gather.

How do you do that? First, tuck your supply of adjectives back into the dictionary and stick to simple nouns and verbs. All those descriptive words carry emotional baggage. A simple declarative sentence like "Five shipments went out late" or "You argued with so-and-so" puts the issues on the table as painlessly as possible.

Stick to the facts. Dates and specific actions are easily established, and defended if it comes to that, and it focuses their responses on the facts. If you slip into judgment, or other people's opinions, you invite the team member to attack either your judgment or other people. Neither of those beginnings will lead to an ending you like.

Remember, listen a lot. Invite him or her to speak. Say things like, "I want to understand," or "I've only heard part of the story yet, and I'd like to hear more from you."

Finally, try not to have preconceived notions. Give your team member a fair hearing, and then take some time to think before you decide. The employee may have to change some things, but you or other team members might have to too. And maybe there are some organizational dysfunctions to correct. Make sure you let all of that come out, or you'll be having the same conversation again down the road.

Remember, counseling is shared discovery, not a debate. The only win comes when you again see eye to eye.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When To Counsel Employees

There will be times when you need to counsel a team member - that is, you'll need to have a conversation to get that person back on the same page with the rest of the team. The trick is knowing when that's necessary. 

On the one hand, counseling is overkill for those corrections that should just occur naturally, as part of leading during the day. If an employee isn't following a process, or needs to change his or her demeanor with customers, those are things you just tell people at the point they happen. If you're just as quick to point out the good things and say thank you, those in-course corrections will be taken in stride.

On the other hand, counseling isn't enough for those instances when a team member is endangering others, or has done one of those things your handbook lists as serious enough for termination, like cheating on time cards, sleeping on the job or drinking. At those times, for the sake of the team and the organization, you need to use the disciplinary process. Just keep in mind that most organizations spell out discipline so that after a second or third offense that employee is suspended, with firing as the next step. Don't start if you don't want to finish.

That sets the extremes. In the middle are those times when a team member gets out of sync with you or the team and you know some adjustments are needed, but you don't want to get rid of the person. Some indicators:
- You can feel the relationship getting worse.
- The person develops a negative attitude that doesn't go away.
- There are persistent and repeated mistakes.
- The person is affecting the way others feel about their work or workplace

When those things happen, it's time to sit down with that team member and start to probe. Remember, counseling isn't disciplinary; it's an effort to find your way back to common ground. It probably will take more than one conversation, but it's worth it. And it's your job.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why You Need Employee Counseling Skills

Most organizations are bad at employee counseling. In fact, most don't do any of it. 

Most organizations have reviews. The problem is, reviews are usually regularly scheduled and don't happen often enough, and often they're really to talk about pay. They're a cookie-cutter approach to feedback that treats everyone the same, and doesn't give anyone enough feedback. 

Most organizations also have disciplinary processes, for people who won't get with the program. 

Between the extremes, though, there's a need for a tool to work with team members, to help them and you get on the same page. Performance issues can come up because a team member understands the work, or the goals, or the boundaries, differently than you do. 

When that happens, you can wait for months, then tell him, "The reason you're not getting a raise is because . . . " That's using the review process. Unfortunately, you have months of bad performance and an unhappy team member as an outcome. 

Or you can get out the handbook, cite her for some kind of failure, make her sign a piece of paper that will go in her file, and send her back to work. That's using the disciplinary process, but the outcome there is potentially a damaged relationship, plus it puts you on a glide path to maybe losing that person. 

Obviously we need something else for those times when team members don't respond to that word to the wise. That's what counseling is all about; it's your tool to dig in with someone who's going sour or isn't developing like he or she should. It's that focused conversation that allows communication to happen. This week, we'll explore some aspects of how leaders can effectively counsel.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Problem with Personality Profile

Every person is unique. That's a cliche, but it's also true and it's hard for leaders to remember. We like to pigeonhole people, to lump them into manageable groups so that we only have to figure out how to deal with a small handful of personalities.

The Myers-Briggs personality test may be the most widely used of its kind worldwide. It pinpoints where you are on a 70-point spectrum in four areas, the ends of which are represented by letters. So, four scales, eight letters, 70 possible ratings per scale for a total of 280 possible scores.

Those 280 points of variability, though a gross simplification of the complexity of our personalities, boil down to only four points of comparison based on just eight possibilities, which folks who use the Myers-Briggs depict with the four letters that represent the halves of the scales.

The problem? Take my score, for example. I'm an INTJ. The first letter indicates that I'm introverted; in fact I was only two points from center on the I side of the scale. That means my personality is a lot closer to that of a moderate extrovert than a strong introvert. But I have been permanently tagged as an introvert, even though I am socially comfortable and like people.

What you need to take away from this is that attempts to generalize your people can easily lead you to mis-understand them. Human beings are just too complex. 

It may be helpful in some contexts to talk about idea people and action people, or starters and finishers, or organizers and creative types, or being data or anecdote-driven. But to lead a person day in and day out, you have to see him or her as one of a kind. You have to learn about that person, not about a personality type. 

After all, you don't want your boss to pigeonhole you, do you?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Correct in Private

Yesterday I wrote about praising in public. The other half of the standard is to correct in private. 

We can all remember a time when we took a public chewing-out, or at least were uncomfortable bystanders to one. The primary result when that happens is resentment; behavior change may follow but only out of avoidance, not from any positive motivation.

Far better to pull your people aside when you need to criticize. Technically "private" means behind closed doors, somewhere no one can see. The intent, though, is to attract as little notice as possible, and sometimes pulling someone into your office has the opposite effect.

Think of it this way: What you're really trying to do is protect the reputation of your team member. You want improvement without making him or her feel less capable, and without making the rest of the team doubt that team member's contribution.

Sometimes a quiet conversation right there at the work station is the least obtrusive, so long as no one can overhear. Or maybe you want to go for a walk, or ask an employee to stop by on the way back from break or lunch. There are a lot of ways to engineer a conversation that will pass unnoticed by the rest of the group.

That makes your job easier, too, because you can zero in on performance and the employee can listen and speak without worrying about his or her image. If you're encouraging where it's warranted, and you make correction relatively low key, then you get the change you want without all the drama. That's good for both of you.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Praise in Public

I once had a boss who regularly patted me on the back -- regularly as in once a year, at my annual performance review, in the privacy of his office. Those little bits of praise did nothing for me, both because they came in such an artificial setting and because they seemed like our little secret.
The old saw "Silence is affirmation" maybe worked for previous generations, but these days people expect to hear what they do right as well as what they do wrong.
First lesson: Praise frequently. In fact, every time a team member does something you like, you should feel free to say so. Multiple times a day isn't too often.
Second lesson: Praise where others can overhear. Walk up to that person at her desk and say, "Good job handling that angry client." Approach an operator at his mill and say, "You really got us out of a bind getting that batch out so fast." Let all of his and her peers see and hear you.
Even better: Say the good thing to someone else (preferably a senior someone) in a context where the team member hears it. When you tell your boss in front of Joe how great Joe is, it's a huge pick-me-up for Joe. Especially if it's also in front of the whole team. The military does this really well.
When you praise in public, you do two things for your team members. First, you make them feel appreciated, which is a basic need we all have. Second, they gain some recognition from the rest of the team, without having to toot their own horns.
For it to be accepted as genuine, though, it has to be natural. If praising doesn't feel natural to you, then you have something to work on. You may have to set yourself a quota at first, to form the habit. But do whatever it takes; this is something you owe your people.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When to Show Weakness

I was taught that Russian Cossacks of at the end of the 1800s wore black with red vests and red-lined capes. The reason? To hide the blood. From a distance a wounded cossack would still look able to fight, and so might deter an attack.
A favored saying of young officers sprung from that bit of lore: "Never let them see you bleed." This was misapplied to mean that you should never show weakness in front of your people.
The question is more nuanced than that. Sometimes your people should see your weakness, sometimes they shouldn't. How do you know? By what you want them to do. Showing your weakness will give employees permission to have the same weakness.
So taking breaks, taking vacation days, or other ways that you rest and recuperate are good for them to see. You want them to rest periodically, so that they do good work. You want them to admit they can't do something, so you should admit it when you don't have the needed skills. Any weakness you want your people to be open about, you should too.
On the other hand, if you're just tired because of a late night, suck it up. If you have a cold and you're feeling miserable, try to hide it. If you're grumpy and want to lash out at people, don't. In all those cases, you need to consistently be a calm and reliable performer. Why? Because in similar situations you want your people either to do their job or take a day off.
Certainly you should never show petty weaknesses at work. Petulance, anger, sulkiness, self-pity -- all of those things have only negative impacts. If you're ever feeling that way, hide it.
Get rid of the old school image of leader as iron man. Instead, simply try to behave the way you want your team to act.
As always, it takes some judgment. But that's why you're the leader: because you have some.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Leader as Ambassador, Part Two

Just as you represent your organization to your team, you must also fulfill the second responsibility of an ambassador: represent your team to management.

Keep in mind that, while some managers came up through the ranks, many came on board as managers, or maybe came up through a different department than yours. Even the ones with some background in your area are a few years removed, and their brains are full of different issues now.

It's up to you to point out things like the heat and humidity in the plant or the lack of raw materials. You may have to explain that the reason the no-smoking policy isn't working is because employees see customers smoking. Unless you tell executives, they're not going to realize that day care agencies don't open until an hour after your shift starts. 

If you don't become the voice of your people, you risk at least two bad outcomes:

- Management will routinely abuse your team with difficult  or onerous requirements. They won't do this because they're mean; they'll simply assume if there was a reason not to this thing (which they see as good for the organization) someone would have told them. That someone should have been you.

- Your team will fail. Something won't get made, a client won't get served, an executive will get bad data in a report, a regulatory deadline will be missed. Something will happen that will make your higher-ups frustrated with your people, who likely did their best in a bad situation.

It takes courage to tell your boss that your group can't do what he wants. It takes even more to say that they could, but they shouldn't have to. But if you don't look out for your people, no one will. And pretty soon they'll look for a new boss.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Leader as Ambassador, Part One

Among the many hats you wear as a leader is that of ambassador.

In a geopolitical sense, an ambassador represents the nation that sends him or her. An ambassador makes sure that the position and interests of his government are communicated, understood and considered by the country he's been sent to.

One of your two jobs as ambassador is to represent your organization to the employees. It's up to you to get them to see what things look like from your boss's point of view, and to understand what the company's reasoning is.

A common pitfall for leaders: Joining in the "stupid managers" grumbling when the company does something unpopular. You may agree with your employees, but there are two bad outcomes when you do that.

The first is that you contribute to a lack of confidence in the future among your team. If senior leadership in your organization really is stupid, why stay?

Second, you make yourself look ineffectual. You're a victim, just like they are. They certainly can't count on you to make a better workplace if you're helpless too.

You owe your boss your best judgment on any issue, but once a decision is made you need to present it and defend it like it's your own. Consider the fact that your boss knows things you don't; you're looking from a balcony but he or she's up on the roof. The CEO is in a helicopter. They all have better perspective than you do.

So do what good ambassadors do: Promote your organization. Defend its interests. Try to get your team to like it and want to support it. After all, if you can't do those things, the only really honest thing to do is work somewhere else.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Firing Often Means the Leader Failed

Some of my best employees were nearly fired along the way. It took a lot of work and several steps of formal discipline to get through the things that were holding them back, but now they're part of the backbone of our operation.

Some organizations don't put that much effort into people - they think it's a waste. But I've always thought that most employee dysfunction is in part a leadership  breakdown. For that reason, I feel like a failure whenever I fire someone, or they quit. And I feel a responsibility to make things work out.

Most of the time when employees behave badly it's related to one of the following:

- A mismatch between my expectations and the demands of their lives. For example, it may be hard to get kids to day care and still make a 6:30 shift start. When I understand the cause of their tardiness, I can either change my expectation or help them find a solution.

- A mismatch between my expectations and their skills. Shame on me for not figuring it out during the hiring phase. Now I need to train, or maybe redefine their role.

- Poor choices they're making in their private lives. That's when I go to "tough love," and hold them to expectations; when people are drinking too much or going through a divorce, they need some fixed structure in their lives. And they need to know that their job depends on them not letting those problems spin them out of control.

- Dysfunction in the relationship between employee and supervisor. Touchy-feely employees may be intimidated by an all-business boss. Focused, get-er-done types might lose respect for a leader who spends time relationship-building. Often getting both in the room helps reveal how each is perceived by the other. If it's you, you need to listen a little more.

- Low motivation. Leaders motivate by helping employees see the value of their work, and by appreciating the value of the employee. They also "motivate" in the negative sense through accountability. Any true leader can get a team member to stop screwing off.

Where employee behavior is related to dishonesty or bad intentions, firing is the answer. But in most cases, there's something the leader could do. Often, once you get through those growing pains, you end up with a solid, loyal team member.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leaders Are Readers

Bill Taylor of Fast Company magazine said, "The only sustainable form of business leadership is thought leadership."

So where do you get exposed to new ideas? Reading is a great place to start. Some suggestions:

- Professional literature. You want to be a sail rather than an anchor, but you can only push your organization forward if you know what direction that is. A key cause of inertia is out-dated thinking.

- Biographies. You can learn a lot by reading about people like Dwight Eisenhower and Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, and you'll be inspired in the process.

- Self-improvement articles. Seems obvious, but you need to challenge your thinking once in a while on the way you set goals, manage time, relate to people, balance your life.

- Fiction. Really. Good fiction will do two things for you, if you read with your brain on: You will learn about conflict (every good story is in some way about resolving conflict) and you'll get a feel for how a certain sub-culture lives.

- History. It's hard to step back from your work and consider how it fits into the grand scheme of things. History helps you see perspective; it's the antidote to navel-gazing.

As you read, in addition to the immediately-useful tip, look for positive character traits that aided success, new ideas on how to do things, the processes that people use to innovate and solve problems, and ways in which others think differently than you do (take the time to wonder why).

There's an added bonus: Reading critically improves your ability to think, to decide what has value and why, to argue for or against concepts.

A Major General I once worked for was fond of saying, "Leaders are readers." That's because readers are thinkers. And it's the thinking part of the job where leaders earn their pay.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Embracing Failure

There's something you need to know about failure: If you're doing your job right you're going to deal with a lot of it.

The only way people learn is to try for themselves. And if you truly let them try, they will fail several times on the way to success. Think of anything you've ever learned -- riding a bike, decorating a room, negotiating a contract, engaging a target with an M16. In every case you didn't really start to learn until you tried it yourself. And in every case, your first few attempts weren't very effective.

The same is true of your team. If you want them to be better than they are today, if you ever want to be able to delegate some of those things only you can do now, you have to let them try. That means you'll see a lot of failures.

Here's how you can let them fail without hurting your organization:
 - Minimize the outcomes by starting small. Let their first attempt be with a one-time customer, or let them practice on discarded stock. Let them drive the forklift around the parking lot before taking them between the racks.
- Put safety nets in place. Assume failure, and have your reactions already thought out. Have spill clean-up kits nearby, maybe forewarn a customer or get him to partner with you in the process.
- Monitor closely, so that you not only detect the failure as soon as it happens. You also know precisely what caused it, so you can teach. That's the idea of "failing forward;" making sure failure brings you closer to the goal.

"Failing forward" is healthy for an organization, and shouldn't bring any negatives for the employee. That's different than failures that are just negligent or accidental and therefore are wasteful. But in the context of learning, which should be a constant process, failure is a key part. Expect it, plan for it, make it safe.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trust but Verify

Those of us who remember the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties of the 1980s and 90s are familiar with the phrase, "Trust but verify." It's a great lesson for leaders.

Trust but verify was the maxim under which we inspected nuclear weapon destruction sites to ensure the weapons were actually scrapped. It's not that we don't trust you to uphold your end of the deal, we said. It's just that the stakes are high enough that we owe it to the world to make sure -- it's just due diligence.

That applies to leadership this way: You have to trust other people to do their jobs, and you do. When another department makes a commitment, or the process requires you to depend on them, you trust that they'll come through.

When you delegate to a team member, you have to trust them to do the work. If you don't, you shouldn't delegate. It's dangerous to communicate a lack of trust; it damages your relationship with that person, and it undermines his or her confidence.

But remember, you can delegate the work but not the responsibility. When it's important, it's your job to make sure it gets done. To guard against mistakes, misunderstandings, or failures by vendors or outside sources, you have to check. Go ask, go look, do something to make sure all the materials came in, all the phone calls got made, so-and-so signed the document, whatever. Especially when you see a potential choke-point, someplace where one thing can stop the whole works, you need to check.

My suggestion: Establish a routine that puts you in the area asking questions periodically. That way when you need to check on something, it's just another question. Or maybe it's just looking. Either way, it's no big deal.

Friday, August 19, 2011

King of the Lab

These days, when I'm asked about motivating employees, I end up talking about the TV show "Bones." I learned one of my most effective motivational techniques from that show.

You see, on Bones, a team of lab techs solves murders by analyzing physical evidence. Whenever one of them makes a breakthrough, he claims the title, "King of the Lab!" One day, I was in the plant when an employee solved a problem and I did the same thing; I actually said, "King of the lab!" When I explained the background, they loved it, and started using it even though the context was wrong. 

Now, more than a year later the practice remains, but the phrase has morphed, changing periodically as someone  tries something new. For a while it was "Rock Monster," from a Veggie Tales video, then various plays on Charlie Sheen's "Tiger blood" and Winning." Right now I think we're using "Well played, Naomi Price," a line from one of William Shatner's Priceline commercials.

A silly little phrase, but it works for a couple of reasons. First, it allows all of us a cool way to recognize each other. Second, it gives the team an acceptable way to celebrate their own successes. Whether I tell you, "well played," or you declare yourself "king of the lab," it's all part of the game. 

And its used -- I'm sure every employee says it multiple times a week. It's easy, it's free, employees buy in because it's trendy, and it works. I can walk into a room and say "Where's Naomi Price" and everyone points to the last person so recognized.

The point for you: You need at least one motivational technique that you can nearly wear out from over-use, something so easy that you can instantly throw out atta-boys as often as they're earned. For me, it's the current variation on "King of the lab!"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Hard Thing

Vivid memory: I was leading a quartering party (a small advance team that scouts and secures a new place for a command post). After maybe 30 minutes on the ground, comms were up, my initial assessment was done, the key pieces of the perimeter defenses had been sited, and my soldiers were hard at work on site prep. So I moved on to the next priority: crew-served weapon positions. I got an entrenching tool, jumped into the hole with a very surprised soldier, and started digging. When I left the unit, he toasted me as the only Major he had ever seen dig a fighting position.

I intentionally recall that moment, because it reminds me that sometimes I personally need to do the hard thing.You can reap huge credibility dividends if institutional memory includes images of you in the trenches doing the worst jobs.

At a minimum, some of your employees should be able to recall a time when you did those jobs, even if you've been promoted past them. Best is if you can find the time once in a while to put on some work clothes and go get dirty again.

When you do the hard thing, there are some invaluable outcomes:
1. You understand at the gut level what it takes to get the job done. That can only help you plan and resource, as well as be empathetic to your team.
2. On that Us-Them spectrum, you move closer to the Us end of the scale.
3. Your employees are more likely to see you as a hard worker with different tasks than theirs, rather than somebody with a slack job who avoids real work.
4. You get actually get something productive done, which always feels good.

Old school leadership said, “Never ask your people to do something you aren't willing to do yourself.” These days that isn't always practical in the literal sense, but the idea is good. My advice: At least once a quarter, schedule a half day or day to roll your sleeves up and do the hard thing for a while. You'll be a better leader.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Law of Adjustment

There’s a leadership principle every coach knows: You have to adjust to win.

The Army axiom that relates is, “No plan survives enemy contact.” The Law of Adjustment simply says that you will have to adapt in response to how events unfold. No adjustments means failure.

The leadership challenge is how to know when an adjustment is needed. You won’t unless you have some way of monitoring what is going on, either by checking computer data, walking around, or maybe being briefed by your people. You have to put some thought into the right indicators to look at, and the right tools to use. Key question: “How will I know if we start to fail?”

The law of adjustment empowers you to do three things:

1. Bounce back from failure. “I was succeeding until X happened. So next time, at that point I’m going to do Y.”

2. Turn impending failure into success. “X isn’t working so let’s try Y.”

3. Exploit success. “Wow, instead of X we’re making money at Y. Let’s put more resources there.”

The bottom line: Adjustments are as important as the plan or process itself. As a leader you need to see that making adjustments is a key part of your role. Actively look for what needs to change; you’re probably the only one who will.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Leading Peers

When I took my present job, my boss set a goal for me that involved improvements in another department. When I pointed out that I had no control over that goal, he said, "I expect you to use influence where you don't have authority."

In other words, lead my peers. That's the truest form of leadership, getting people who don't have to listen to you to do what is needed.

Peers will follow you if a couple of conditions exist.

First, they can't see you as a threat, to their position, prestige, or chances of promotion. Most of us have the idea that we have to out-compete our peers for the good stuff. If they think you're trying to gain an advantage in the rat race, they'll never follow.

Second, what you're proposing has to make sense for them. It should make life easier for them or their department in some way; there needs to be an advantage. Otherwise, why spend their resources on your problem? You can't expect peers to follow just because you or your boss wants them to.

So here are the to-dos:
1. Be transparent about what you're really working on. "I'd like us to do this because it will solve this problem I have." That answers the question of what's the hook. He or she is going to know you're not just trying to help out, so let them know right up front what your motive is.
2. Do your homework. Know enough about things to know how your idea is going to affect his or her work or people. If you can point out the impacts yourself, along with possible mitigation or sufficient pay-back, those arguments are less likely to become obstacles. Plus you'll seem to care.
3. Do more than your share of the work. Never give them a way to say, "This is costing me more than it costs you."
4. Give him or her the credit. "Boss, look what they did to help me fix this problem." Everone involved will know the truth, but credit is high-value currency in any organization so its a great way to get your peer to see it as a win.

These steps will be effective in direct relationship to the reputation you already have for integrity. If you've earned a shady name, good luck getting any cooperation from your peers. If your personal brand is strong, some will follow just hoping a little bit of whatever you have will rub off on them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Self-Directing Teams

A decade ago, my company started a new division using a self-directing team: No boss. Within a few years they had returned to the traditional supervisory model; the experiment was a bust. The power vacuum prompted a power struggle between a couple of forceful people, and the team split into factions.

Self-directing teams can be effective if organized well and used appropriately. Often they fail, and usually because someone bought into the fallacy that self-directing teams don't need leaders.

Immutable law of the universe: Every group needs and will find a leader. Just watch kids on the playground, or your employees after you announce you can't give bonuses this year. Any time a group of people acts together, it's because someone got them to agree on what to do. Without leadership, people act as individuals.

This is true even when no leader has been appointed. Any time a group forms around a common cause, a leader will emerge. Someone either takes charge through a dominant personality or is given leadership because he or she has a lot of influence. But the group wants to be led; most people want to do, not decide.

Even a self-directing team needs to be told on an operational level what to work on, to have its boundaries set, to have regular input and guidance to keep it on the right course, and to have accountability. The occasional tie will need to be broken. Those parts of leadership must be external to the team.

Teams can effectively self-direct in choosing how to do work, when to do it, and to some extent what to work on. Self-directing teams can be very effective problem solvers and improvement finders; they are inherently more creative than directed teams. But even in doing those things, you will observe that someone will step up and lead, enabling the others to cooperate and get things done.

Use self-directing teams in situations where they and the organization will benefit. Just don't succumb to the fallacy that there is no boss. It's either you, someone you designate, or someone that emerges, but they will have a leader.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Fourth Job of a Leader: Reward the Team

We've talked about the first three jobs of a leader: Set the course, prepare the team, and get the work done. The fourth is to reward the team.

When your people do good work, reward them. If you don't, you signal to them that being better than average has no more value. After all, the basic employment contract is they work, you pay. If you won't move beyond that, neither will they.

So at the end of a busy spell, or when a project gets done, or just every so often, do something for your team. Buy them pizza. Cut up a watermelon. Give them jackets or polo shirts. Sometimes, give them money. Always, tell them specifically what they did that you're thanking them for.

I say sometimes on the money because the motivational value of money is very short-lived; we all have an insatiable appetite for more. A decent compensation package is part of that basic employment contract we talked about, not a reward system. A merit increase outside your normal raise cycle can make a great reward, but if you do it too often then nothing else you do will look very good. Bonuses are tricky; you will never have enough money to satisfy, so you run the risk of looking cheap if the amount disappoints them.

Mostly what your team wants is for you to acknowledge that they worked hard. That's why movie tickets (tip: give enough for the whole family) or even public praise can be effective.

A couple of key points: First, reward the whole team, because everything involves teamwork. But also reward your top performers individually, because otherwise you encourage mediocrity. Give them a reason to excel. It also sends a message to the rest.

Second, it's not your job to reward yourself, anymore than a team member can give himself a day off. It's up to your boss to reward you. If you have a bad boss, don't take it out on your people. Reward them anyway, even if you're not getting anything.

Rewards are more than just fair, they're smart leadership. They motivate the behaviors you want and put the team in the right frame of mind to try hard on the next job. That's why this task is just as important as the first two.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Third Job of a Leader: Get the Work Done

There are really only four basic tasks a leader does; the third one is getting the work done.

I wrote previously about setting the course and preparing the team, both critical functions. But both of those jobs only have value in the context of this one. The reason your team exists, and the reason your leadership is needed, is to get something done.

Before you dismiss this as a no-brainer, let me remind you of the Falais Pocket. A few months after the landings in Normandy on D-Day, the Allies had a huge part of the German Army virtually encircled in a huge pocket near the city of Falais. They had the opportunity to take several divisions out of the war, but in the end most of those units escaped through a gap left open because Field Marshall Montgomery didn't want to risk his troops in battle.

Montgomery forgot that the reason he had an army was to fight the Germans. It's just as easy for us to forget the reason we have a team is to get something done. I sometimes do that, when I get frustrated at some salesman for taking an order that will be hard for us to fill.

Often for leaders the fun is in the planning, in the training, in the meetings where you get to sit at the head of the table and talk about stuff. We like the org charts and the studies and the reports that tell us how well we're doing -- all those things that tell us about our little empires. But the point of it all is to get something done. 

The right ratio will vary by organization, but in my business my team and I should spend at least 90% of our time making paint. That's the point; that's the reason the company pays us. Setting the course, preparing the team, that's just so that we can do the work.

Bottom line: If your team doesn't get its work done, it and you are no good to the organization. Sometimes that means you roll up your sleeves and get in there with them. Sometimes it means you play gofer to make sure they have what they need. Sometimes it means you hold them accountable. But whatever it takes, get the work done.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Second Job of a Leader: Prepare the Team.

Of the four basic tasks of a leader, the second is to prepare the team.

The function here is to assemble (hire or recruit) a team that is capable of doing the things your organization tasks you with, and then to train them as necessary in the core competencies. As team members leave, new members have to be fit into the group and trained to the same level of competence.

Beyond that, though, when you start something new you may need to recruit a temporary addition to the team, or maybe train team members specifically for a new requirement. If you don't have the skills yourself, then arrange for the right person.

The key point: You can't expect anything from your people that you haven't personally verified that they can do. If they don't have the skills, it's not their fault. It's up to you to either verify competency at the time of hire, or to train it into new employees.

It's not significantly different than coaching a sports team. You can either pay the premium to hire proven performers, or you can recruit raw talent. Either way, it's up to you, the coach, to meld the pieces into a unified team that gets it done on the field.

In the real world, this is usually an on-going process, done on the fly as team members turn over. That doesn't relieve you of the responsibility to make sure all team members are capable. Many organizations have formal training programs to make this part of the job easier to keep track of.

You owe your team members the training they need to do their jobs. You owe your organization the effort it takes to field a competent team. And don't forget resourcing: Your team won't do much without the right tools to work with.

Bottom line: When it's time to perform, your team had better be ready. It's the leader's job to make sure they are.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The First Job of a Leader: Set the Course

There are really only four jobs that a leader does for the team; everything else is a sub-role to one of those four. 

The first is to set the course; many call this vision-setting. It's the leader's job to see what needs to be done, and to get the team to see it. To do that, he or she must communicate a few things.

1. The what. This is a summary of the work, a brief statement of what has to be accomplished.

2. The why. This should be expressed in a way that links it to recognized organizational roles and goals. 

3. The outcome. This is a description of what the end state should look like.

4. The benefit. This is the emotional connection; it's a statement of how life will be better after the work is done. It answers "What's in it for me."

For example, consider this course-setting or vision-setting statement. "We need to create a second shift using a third of the team for a period of about 10 weeks (the what). We need to do this because Maintenance will be taking out two mills and replacing them with newer models; the new mills will grind faster and allow us to use less pigment (the why). The second shift will allow us to make up for the lost capacity during the transition, so that when we're done, we will be current with the production schedule and our customers won't see any interruptions in service (the outcome). If we can pull that off, when we all get back on day shift we'll have the same workload but we'll be able to get it done with about 20% less effort, and we'll open up new markets for the company (the benefit). Now, let's brainstorm the best way to do this."

Note that there's a lot of planning and team-enabling to come. You can only do those things, though, when the course is set.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Lead for Your Best People

I once served under a general who  said, "Lead for your best people, not your worst." That simple saying revolutionized the way I lead.

There are two very powerful ideas embedded in that piece of advice. First, decisions should be made based on what is right for your good people, not what is necessary for your bad ones.

Example: Our IT manager recently wanted to audit my team's e-mail. His goal was a good one, to eliminate wasted time. His solution, though, would have communicated lack of trust to all the good people who don't abuse the privilege. Instead, I tasked supervisors with monitoring employee activity for a period to determine if there was a problem.

The second idea is that expectations should be based on what your good people are capable of. Don't let attendance standards slip because some people have a hard time getting to work. Don't limit your organization's activity to only what your whole group can currently do. Don't manage for mediocrity, expect and reward excellence.

When you lead like everyone can do what your good folks are doing, you elevate the whole team. The good work done by your best people drags the rest of the group to a higher plane.  When top-performers have free reign, it becomes harder for the bottom-feeders to camouflage the disparity in performance. Under-performers will struggle to catch up to your expectation that they'll be right in there with the rest.

Because you spend a lot of time dealing with your bad people, it's easy to think about them more than your good ones. So remind yourself daily to lead for your best people, and let everyone else try to keep up.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Two Things Your Team Wants.

A fellow manager and I were commiserating on how hard it is to lead when he said this: "Employees just want you to leave them alone except for when they don't."

There's a lot of truth there, because that in a nutshell is the only two things team-members really want from their leader.

They want you there when it's time to set expectations, define the task, provide the resources, and affirm finished work. They also want you there anytime they feel unsure about what they're doing.

They want you to leave them alone when they understand what has to be done and are doing it, or when they have an opportunity to talk about their work with higher ups or customers.

The lesson here for leaders: Let each team member define your involvement. Some are less secure and will appreciate hourly check-ins. Some are confident, and just want you there to say "Wow, good job." at the end of the day.

Critical point: When they have a chance to shine, get out of the way and let them do it. Almost every team member wants his or her five minutes of fame when the CEO walks through.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tough Talk for Insecure Leaders: Pushing Through Self-Doubt

Most leaders doubt themselves. Face it, you're not Colin Powell, or Steve Jobs, or whoever the greatest leader in your industry is. In fact, exactly half of us are below average.

You can still lead well, though. It's a  myth that leaders are all exceptional. Most leaders are just average folks who have two things anyone can learn: a strong mission focus and a bias toward action.

When you focus on the mission, your attention is on what needs to be done instead of yourself and what you believe your inadequacies to be. A bias toward action puts you in motion, and once you're in motion you gain momentum. So fix your eyes on the objective, and then go there.

A few keys:

- Never, ever listen to that little voice that says you shouldn't be the one leading. Self-doubt leads to inertia, and it's pointless; you don't get to decide. Your team needs a leader, your boss pinned the rose on you, so until you're replaced you have to lead. Stop thinking about it and go do it. 

- Don't think about how someone else would do it; you're not them, and your boss probably never said, "I want you to do this like Colin Powell would." You'll get the best results employing your strength rather than using some so-called right answer. You're never as good trying to be someone else as you are being yourself.

- There aren't style points. Nobody except you cares about how you look doing it. Everyone cares if it gets done; most will never notice how. Concentrate on effectiveness.

- Do your best. You can't do more than that, just make sure you don't do less. I promise you that any commander or CEO prefers an average Joe or Jane who does their best every time over a more talented person who may or may not show up. Honest effort counts for a lot, especially with your team.

We all have those times when we don't feel adequate for the responsibilities we carry. You just have to push through the self-doubt, and the best way to do that is to focus on the job at hand and get moving.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Go Look

Nothing is as good as seeing for yourself. When you're the leader, you need to go and look.

A friend was once given the mission of installing a temporary bridge over a stream. After a couple of days of planning and coordination, he arrived at the site with a platoon of Combat Engineers, several truck-loads of Bailey Bridge sections, and supporting medics, only to discover there was already a bridge there.

Things are never as you remember them, and they never match the impression you form from a report. The only way for you to really know is to put your eyes on it. Especially if there's a measurement or data point important to a plan, go make sure.

A couple of quick gut-checks: Is there anyplace under your supervision that you haven't visited in a week? When was the last time you looked at every piece of equipment you're responsible for? Do you ever walk around the property and evaluate the cleanliness and maintenance of the grounds and buildings?

We get so busy with our spreadsheets and e-mails and meetings that it's hard to get away from the office. It's easy to go a while without actually getting to where the action is, especially if the action is someplace hot and dirty. Even worse is if you're responsible for a remote location.

Bottom line: You cannot effectively manage what you never look at. In effect, you're allowing someone else to manage that resource, because you decide based on what they tell you.

So go look. I guarantee that each time you do, you'll find a part of the process that's drifted from optimum, or some housekeeping that isn't getting done. You'll also find some good ideas that got implemented and talk to some good employees who will lift you up. And you'll know, for sure, what's going on out there.

Besides, it's a lot more fun than sitting at a desk.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Flexibility Requires Planning

The Army uses an extremely effective technique that I haven't seen done anywhere else: It issues Operation Orders for every mission. 

OpOrds detail the overall mission and all subordinate missions - everyone knows their and everyone else's job. While it seems rigid, the OpOrd actually permits flexibility that borders on spontaneity, because it's the basis of Fragmentary Orders, or Fragos.

A Frago is an on-the-fly modification of a single part of the overall operation in response to changing circumstances. It can be as simple as "Main element divert to secondary route," or "First Platoon block Highway 6; the reserve will assume First's mission." Something changes, the commander adapts, the mission continues with barely a pause.

There are a couple of key ideas here for leaders in any kind of organization.

First, organizational flexibility requires a good plan. The Frago doesn't work without the original OpOrd, which has already put everyone in the right place doing the right things. In the same way, you can't make on-the-fly changes if your people aren't already following a mutually-understood course of action.

Second, don't get too invested in your plan. Expect it to change; in fact, actively monitor so you quickly see the needed changes. Mindlessly pursuing the plan is almost as bad as not having one, because as soon as something changes, your plan isn't the best way anymore.

Example: Assuming I have a good production plan, then when a truckload of raw materials is delayed, I can just say, "Pull up the batch of such-and-such instead." An employee goes home sick, "Shut down Mill 11 and put the operator on Mill 8." Things change, and at the end of each day what we actually did can be quite a bit different than what we planned. 

But, and this is the power of it all, despite all the changes in circumstances and activity, the work we wanted done got done. That's the power of planning, and the power of the Frago.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Sure Way to Make Things Worse: Lie

I've been teaching leadership to junior officers and young businessmen for a couple of decades, and I always tell them the same thing I told my kids: There's no situation so bad that you can't make it worse by lying about it.

We want to lie because the truth is hard to say, maybe even hurtful. But truth is persistent, and it takes a lot of work to hide it forever. And your team knows most of what you know. When your lie becomes known, there are only a handful of outcomes, and all are bad.

People can choose to believe you just didn't know the truth. Now you look stupid or incompetent.

People can decide maybe you lied for a good reason. Now you're on probation; everything you say will be examined for the potential lie, because if you accept the idea of a good reason to lie, you'll find them everywhere.

Most likely, people will decide you lied to give you an advantage over them - you just played dirty. Good luck getting them to ever trust you again.

And that's the bottom line, as a leader. When you lie to your team, you're risking your ability to lead for a long time to come, maybe forever. It's your reputation on the line; without integrity there's no trust, and people don't follow leaders they can't trust.

Far better to say "I can't tell you," or even "I won't tell you." That will be scored as an honest response, even if they don't like it.

My preference: State the truth plainly the first time the topic comes up. It's like ripping off a Band-Aid -- being tentative isn't going to make it less painful.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Lesson of the Rope: Commitment Varies

There's an old joke from mountaineering school: The reason you rope a team together is so that when the leader gets there, the others are still following.

That joke has morphed for me into a powerful image of how most teams act. The leader has the vision; he can see the top of the mountain and imagine the view once he gets there. Some team members can also catch the vision, some never catch the vision but follow because they trust the leader, and some only follow because they're tied to the rest. Without the rope, they quit.

The leadership lesson here: Because people don't start on the same level of understanding and commitment, you're unlikely to develop everyone to the ideal that you have for your team. In fact, experience suggests you should only hope to move a team member up one category.

That means you can maybe get the quitter to trust that following you will bring good things, so you no longer have to track him down and get him back to work. The ones who just follow out of trust might begin to see some glimmer of the vision.

It's the ones who follow because they see the vision who have the best potential to be future leaders. They're the ones who can elevate your team and ease your workload.

That's why I invest most of my time with that group -- the return on investment is so much higher. Those are the people who can most easily and effectively be empowered.

The important thing is that the whole team follows for some reason other than the rope. Don't burden yourself with the requirement to get every single one to see the vision - some never will. For those folks, make sure that the trust is high enough that they'll follow you even when they don't completely get where you're going.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

You Want to Hear Some Negativity

My department has a positive culture, which can be a problem. I want to hear some negativity from my team.

That's counter-intuitive, because we got to be leaders by having a positive attitude, and we want our people to be positive. That's in line with current leadership culture, which allows little place for negative thinking.

That approach is based on a false premise, which is that things are always good. Truth is, some ideas are bad and some actions are ineffective and some people don't care, so unrelenting positivity is a result of either self-delusion or good meds. 

Your team has a lot of negative thoughts. If your culture doesn't encourage them to lay their doubts on the table, you miss the opportunity to help them see the whole picture. Or maybe you miss an early warning that there's trouble ahead. Bottom line: If they're not with you, you want to know early on.

Don't fool yourself: If they're thinking it, they're saying it. If they don't say it to you or the group, they'll vent in the lunch room or at the water cooler. That's the kind of negativity we all fear, because it de-motivates.

Healthy skepticism, expressed in terms of actions and outcomes ("I think if we do this, the outcome will be this bad thing") is a critical part of developing good plans and processes. Not everyone is articulate, though, so what you're likely to hear is what we all hate: "That won't work." 

When you hear that, probe. Find out why they think it won't work, and ask what they think would. It could save you a lot of heart-ache later on.

You hear a lot of grousing from the most can-do people in the most motivated and capable organizations in the world: elite military units. They bitch because they have high standards and high expectations, and they won't settle. That's what you want in your team.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Medium Affects the Message

I recently turned a positive change for the team into a problem between me and one team member by communicating badly. One of the mistakes I made involved using e-mail when I should have talked face-to-face.

Lesson re-learned: The medium can change the message.

The hard part about getting a message across is that it passes through so many filters: The one between your thoughts and your words, and the ones created by different perspectives you and your team have. And there's the filter of the medium. The mistake I made was using the wrong medium for the content and the situation.

E-mail is great for passing along facts and data, coordinating schedules, and light relationship building (thank yous, well wishes). It's lousy for transmitting emotion or for dialog. And it not only stays around forever, it propagates as people forward.

The phone is a good tool for conversations, when some back and forth is needed to coordinate or to decide, but it works best when both parties are basically on the same page.

Face-to-face is the only good way to communicate when there are differences to be resolved, or there is strong emotional content. In those cases there are too many ways to be misunderstood, and you need to be where you can watch people's reactions and read their body language. And face-to-face is always the most effective relationship-builder.

The wrong medium can actually create barriers to communication. In my case, there was some emotional content to the information; e-mail tends to magnify passion. Also, my relationship with this person required some dialog, and e-mail just doesn't work for that.

Bottom line: the medium is inseparable from the message, so choose your means as thoughtfully as your words. When in doubt, the safest is to talk face-to-face.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Leader's Intent

Unless you want to micro-manage, the most critical piece of communication to your team is your intent statement. If you tell your people what the job is, and then state your intent, in many cases you can leave everything else up to them. That's empowerment at its best. 

Intent is a combination of the reason and the desired end state. The easiest way is to start with the actual words: My intent is . . . no interruption of service to the customer. My intent is . . . to cut 20% in utility costs. My intent is . . . to deny the enemy the use of that road.

The intent statement lets your team use judgment and initiative. They can innovate. If conditions change and the plan won't work anymore, they can make decisions that will still get you where you want to be.

I recently jammed a batch of paint into the schedule, setting the due date for the next day. I stated my intent that the customer's paint line would not shut down for lack of paint. My production supervisor chose to split the batch in two, get a small batch done quickly and without overtime, and then do the rest at a normal pace. His solution didn't follow our process, but it was effective, less costly, and met the intent.

Your intent statement frees both you and your team: you don't have to work through all the details, and they don't have to follow a script.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The 3rd Rule of Presence: Look Like You're Leading

The Three Rules of Presence was the best advice I got from the previous commander when I took command of my company.

The third rule: Look like you're leading. Show some leadership presence. Act like you expect people to follow. Portray confidence, or your team will lose confidence.

Confidence is hard when team members are more expert than you. But you're the leader because you're best at problem-solving, or organizing, or something. Trust in the talent that got you the job. Be confident in your ability to put your people in position to achieve.

The best way to stay confident: remember your role. You define the task, and then set the conditions. You don't have to lead the actual work, you just have to control the conversation, mostly by asking questions. Take a look back at my "Take Charge" post for an outline.

So take control of the conversation, guide it to a resolution, and then shift to resourcing. After the course is set, when it's time to roll your sleeves up, you can let your experts lead without losing credibility.

Bottom line: A stranger watching from a distance should be able to pick you out as the leader. If they can't tell, you're probably not leading. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The 2nd Rule of Presence: Wherever You Are, Be All There

The best advice I got from the outgoing commander when I took command of my company was the Three Rules of Presence. 

The second one was this: Wherever you are, be all there. Be present in more than just body.

He said soldiers are used to being overlooked by officers. They're used to brass who really aren't interested. You dilute the power of the first rule (leverage your location) if you obviously are mentally elsewhere.

So look at people. Turn away from the computer. Keep your Blackberry in your pocket. Set aside the last thing you did, and the next thing you have to do. Give yourself 100% to the conversation or activity you're participating in right now.

Do this, and you'll learn more, people will be motivated by your interest, and you won't miss information because it passed through your ears without contacting your brain.

Don't do it, and your decisions won't be as good, you'll know less, and your people will peg you as just another seagull manager: You fly by, and what you leave behind is, well . . . crap.

Obvious advice, you've heard it before, but ask yourself: what percentage of the time do you have your boss's complete, unfocused attention? If it's so easy, why doesn't he/she do it more? And, be honest, why don't we? Give your people what they deserve: Your focus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The First Rule of Presence: Leverage Your Location

When I took command of my company, I asked the outgoing commander for advice. He told me about what he called the Three Rules of Presence.

The first one relates to your physical presence: Leverage your location. Like leaning on a bicycle, you can shift the course your team takes by where you are.

He explained that soldiers believe their commander is not only completely committed to the organization, but also totally focused on the objective. Because of that, they will assume that you'll be wherever most important thing is going on.

That means there's a really easy way for you to put emphasis on something: Just go there. Show up somewhere, or ask about something, and your team will think it's important. After all, there were a lot of other things you could have chosen to spend your time on.

Key learning event for me: My company passed a key maintenance inspection for the first time in a decade, and my people gave me credit. I protested; I literally hadn't done a thing to contribute. My First Sergeant corrected me: "Sir, in every training meeting for the last year, this was the first thing you asked about, and every Saturday morning, you stopped by the Motor Pool to check. Every soldier in the company knew this was high on your list." What I did, inadvertently, was use the First Rule of Presence.

Your people gauge importance by your interest, which they gauge by your presence. It works the other way too: Your team will devalue anything you never look at or ask about.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Serve First

Unless you're a technical specialist like a surgeon, you serve your team, not the other way around.  Your organizational reason for being is to make your people more effective. To pay for you, their collective output has to increase by more than whatever you cost. So you need to serve them before doing anything else by making sure they have what they need to perform.

Here's how I do that: first thing every morning I walk around and talk to all of my direct reports. We talk about the day's work and anything that might keep them from getting it done. I fix what I can during the walk-around, and address the rest as soon as I get back to my office. Then I finally look at e-mail and get to my own work.

The last 30 minutes of my day is set aside to review tomorrow's work and verify that my team has the necessary resources to do it.

Bottom line: My team's productivity is more important than mine. If they fail to perform, it's on me as the leader. And then it doesn't matter how much I personally got done, my team (I) still let the organization down.