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.