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

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.