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

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.