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

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.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Take Charge

No one wants to be in an out-of-control meeting, or on a project team that's spinning its wheels. That happens a lot, though, often because the leader doesn't want to be bossy.

The first thing the military teaches young leaders is this: When in charge, take charge. If you're the leader, do your job. That doesn't mean bark orders like a tyrant. Taking charge means a few simple things that anyone can do, but until someone does them the team is going nowhere:
1. Set the focus - here's what we're working on right now.
2. Keep everyone on task.
3. Draw out opposing viewpoints - ask for objections.
4. Give everyone a chance to be heard.
5. After all input is on the table, make the decision, if one is required. You're the tie-breaker.

Symbolism helps a lot. Take the head seat at the table, or stand. You've been put in charge, so let them see you take charge, not for your benefit, but because every team needs a leader.