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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How to Really Know Your Team

We all know that to lead well you have to know your people. Do you? Really? 

Most leaders think that means to know names of family members, birthdays, what work they like, what they're good at, what rewards and motivators they respond to. Those are good things, but they don't get at who people really are. 

Here's what you need to know: What they value, where their passion is, what really trips their trigger. And, as every good detective knows, you can find out what people really care about by looking at what they spend their money and time on. 

You can't ask them about money, but you can ask about time. "Got big plans for your weekend?" "What did you do over the holidays?" Mostly they'll give you generalities, but once in a while they'll mention something - a nonprofit, a cause, a hobby - that hints at their passion. Take note, and ask questions. Be genuinely interested. 

When you talk about what they really want to talk about, you make a connection. You show interest in him not for what he can do for you, but for who he is outside of work. By being interested, you communicate that he's an interesting person. That's a huge deposit in the relational bank account. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When Not to Lead

Good leaders are like good salesmen: Good salesmen are always selling, and good leaders never stop leading. That can be a problem, though; sometimes you need to not lead. 

One of those times is when you're on a team that has a leader, and you aren't it. The old military axiom really is good advice: When in charge, take charge, when you're not, don't. As a leader you undoubtedly see things you'd do differently (I know, you're thinking "better") but a team can only have one leader and your best-intended efforts to lead will just be disruptive. 

The other time, though, and maybe more important, is when your team is moving itself. They caught your vision, they want to get to the same future state you do, and they see how. And now they're doing it, they're encouraging each other, they're pulling together, they're making it happen. Your job now is to not screw it up.

When you let them run, they energize themselves, they own the results, and they love the work. If you lead overtly at those times, you devalue what they're doing. So monitor, nudge, cheerlead, but stay out of the way. It's those times when you seem like you're not needed that are the proof of your team-building skills. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Evangelism: A Key Leader Skill

If you don’t have some missionary in you, you’ll probably struggle some days with leadership.

That’s because a critical skill for leaders is evangelizing. We think of that as a religious thing, and usually it is, but that’s not what I mean.

As leader, you have the vision. You can see, in your mind’s eye at least, what the future looks like. You know how life will get better if your team just listens and acts, if they just follow. But how do you get them to do that?

By evangelizing. You have to talk, to serve, to build relationships, to build trust. Those are the same things evangelists do. They persuade, they convince, they demonstrate in a thousand ways that they’re not in it for themselves, but for the good of others.

If you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ll naturally work to convince your team. It’s the best thing, it will make the work easier or better or more fun, it will be far better for the team than the current state. When you feel that way, you never stop trying to sell your vision. That’s evangelizing.

If you don’t ever have to persuade your team to strive for something, then they are probably leading you.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

One Job

You know that meme that's going around the Internet? "You had one job . . ." Actually, it's been around a while, and the cool people are probably on to something else by now. But the meme is tacked to pictures of people failing; implying that this one simple thing was too much for them.

Well, as a leader, you have one job. Oh, you do a lot more, but those parts of your job aren't leading. Those parts are supervising (making sure work gets done) or administering (keeping track of stuff) or managing (divvying out resources). 

Leaders only do one thing: They move people. That's your one job. Leading means taking people from where they are to a different place. You're Daniel Boone, showing your team how to make it through the mountains to a better life on the other side.

If your team doesn't need to go to anywhere, they don't need a leader; all those other jobs are enough. And if you're not taking them anywhere, you're not leading. You're a custodian, keeping the status quo nice and spiffy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An Easier Way Than Personal Branding

If you've been reading the past few days, you know how I feel about self-branding or self-promotion. One last point on the topic: It isn't necessary. There's a much more effective way to what you're after, and it's easier too.

I got some wise counsel as a young officer: Forget about promotion, just do my job like it's the most important thing in the whole Army. I did that, and I never got the chance to think about getting promoted. That's because as soon I as I hit minimum time-in-grade, I was recruited for every promotion I ever got.

Look around you. It's the guy who shows up and works all day, every day who stands out. It's the gal who never says, "That's not my job." It's the person who thinks about the team and not about personal credit. Those people are easy to spot in the herd of self-promoters and ladder-climbers. They're trusted, they have influence. And they get recruited.

So save all the energy it takes to wave your own flag. Instead, show up and do your job. Lead your team like it's the only team you ever want. Attack the work like you're saving the world. Give more than you get every single day. Live like you already have your dream job. 

If you do that, I promise it won't be long until some executive somewhere wants you on her team. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Self-Promotion is a Leadership Killer

It's a favorite quote, one I think you've heard before and maybe even in this blog, some famous words of Margaret Thatcher: "Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you're one, you aren't." Or something to that effect.

That's the other problem I have with the idea of personal branding, which I wrote about earlier this week. Self-promotion just doesn't work. People are sick of being sold stuff, and they get turned off pretty quickly if you try to sell yourself. That's true for your bosses, and it's true for your team. And it's especially true for your peers; they're just as good as you and they don't want to hear you toot your own horn.

The fact is, if you're a good leader, your bosses are already talking about you, and so is your team. Your peers are probably already being influenced by you. Bragging is only going to damage the good reputation you've already built. If you're not a good leader, all the talk in the world won't help you. Because here's the problem: By turning people off, self-promotion destroys your ability to lead.

So focus on your team. Help them succeed. Help them grow. Move them from where they are to a better place. Do that, and you'll stand out in your organization like you're wearing a neon sign. There are lots of self-promoters and ladder-climbers. There aren't very many true leaders.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

There's Only One Reason to Care About Your Personal Brand

You hear a lot these days about your personal brand - that is, making your name valuable in the marketplace just like companies do with the brand names they sell under. I don't mean to be a Grinch on this, but for the true leader there's only one reason to care about your personal brand.

Basically the idea of personal branding is selfish - it's all about either personal glory or personal advancement. Those are bad motivators for a leader. If that's what you're after, then be honest, with yourself at least, and acknowledge that you don't want to lead, you want to climb on the backs of your people.

The one good thing your personal brand brings to the team is influence, which is just your ability to get others to trust you and agree with you. Influence is what lets you convince those outside your team to do things that will help your team.

So stop thinking of your personal brand and start thinking about your reputation. Reputation is like a brand without the price tag; it's wanting the same good name for purposes other than yourself.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Leading Without Authority

I remember clearly the day my boss said to me, "I expect you to exert influence where you have no authority." I didn't like it; it seemed to me that if he wanted me to get the thing done, I should have the authority to do it.

But sometimes you won't have authority. Sometimes, on your team's behalf, you need to change behavior in another department. In those cases you need to lead without authority.

It won't be that hard if you already have influence, because influence is more effective than authority. You know that team member that everyone listens to, sometimes more than they listen to you? That guy, or gal, has influence. Influence comes from credibility, from a reputation that makes people trust you. If you have it, all you have to do is talk.

If you don't have influence, then you have to build your case. Start with the idealistic: How what you want is good for the world, will secure the future of the company, may even shrink the hole in the ozone layer. Then move on to what's in it for the other department; it has to somehow be good for them or they won't listen.

It sounds cynical, but the bottom line is other departments aren't likely to change just to help your team, and without authority you can't make them. You have to persuade. And it takes a better leader to do that than to command.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When a Team Member Leaves for More Money

If it hasn't happened already, someday a team member will give you notice, and the reason will be more money. Sometimes, that's even true.

Most of the time, though, that's code for "I don't want to get into all the reasons I'm leaving, or to have you try to talk me out of it. So I'm going to say they'll pay me more than you will."

There are all kinds of studies that put money fourth or fifth on the list of reasons why people like their jobs. First is usually feeling needed and valued. Social connections are important too, as is a friendly, safe environment, and feeling like you're doing good in the world. When your team member says it's money, chances are it's at least one of those other things.

By the time you're having the conversation, it's probably too late to keep that person.  But do a good exit interview, asking about all those other things. You'll get some negative feedback; those are things you'd better fix if you want to keep the rest of your team.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to Demote and Motivate at the Same Time

Can you demote someone and motivate him at the same time? Sure you can. Twice, after firing people, they've thanked me and credited me with getting them on a better path. It's not easy, though, and it has less to do with how you handle the demotion than how you've handled everything leading up to it.

First, you have to have one clearly-communicated standard that you and everyone on your team is expected to meet. 

Second, you have to react consistently to every failure to meet that standard, every time, and even-handedly. No favorites, no exceptions, no special treatment. Not even for you.

Third, you have to make every member of your team feel valued not just for his or her work, but for being the person he or she is. Hint: You do that by actually valuing them.

If you follow those three rules, then when you demote a team member, he'll already know that he has not met the clearly-defined standard, and he'll also know, from observation and personal experience, that failure to meet the standard has consequences. Since all of that is out of the way, you can spend most of your time on a pep talk about how valuable he's been and will be again if he can just get on top of this temporary blip in his performance.

If you've genuinely valued him in the past, and you mean what you say, he'll buy it. And you won't have to lead him through a couple weeks of the crabbies before you can start moving the team forward again. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Unequal Pay

It's one of the toughest conversations you'll have as a leader: One team member finds out exactly how much less he's making than another. He's angry, he's hurt, he wonders if he can trust you. What do you do?

There are two good reasons to pay someone more: Either the job he does or the work he does is worth more.

If it's the job, it's usually an easy conversation. You can point to the degree needed for the other job, or the different scale that job has with your company. You can shift the conversation to what the unhappy team member can do to make himself eligible for that other job, or one like it.

If it's the work, you have a tougher job. If you base even part of your raises on merit, you have to tell employees regularly how they're doing. If you've done that, you can point out how the higher-paid team member is doing the things you've already counseled your unhappy member about. If this is the first time the unhappy employee is hearing it, though, your relationship and credibility is going to take a hit, and rightfully so.

The bottom line: If you're talking to your people regularly about performance, and if your pay decisions are fair, you won't have this problem very often.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Would Your Team Volunteer to Follow You?

I envy people who lead volunteers. You know why? Because they buy into the vision; it’s the only reason unpaid workers work.


It’s true that volunteers can cause a leader a lot of headaches. You can’t discipline them (How? Pay cut? Suspension?) and they’re really hard to fire. And they’re prone to quit when things don’t go their way.


But volunteers have the best possible attribute of a team member: They believe in what you’re doing. They’re there out of love and conviction; they’re working from the heart. Motivating volunteers is so easy a caveman can do it.


So here’s one of the most challenging tests of your leadership: Would your team volunteer to work for you? Take the pay question out of it; if they could choose any boss and any department in the company, would they choose yours? If you asked which team did the most meaningful work, would they say yours?


The work your team does is important. Do they know it? Do they believe it? If not, it’s on you. Get out there and paint the vision in such bright colors they can’t miss it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The President's Leadership Challenge with Syria

Our president’s in a tough spot right now. Doesn’t matter if you like him or not, any leader can feel for him; he’s up against an almost no-win situation in Syria, leadership-wise.


His problem: Those he’s trying to lead aren’t buying his vision. If he does what he thinks is right, it might erode his leadership as followers, at home and internationally, become disillusioned. If he doesn’t, he could lose leadership cred too, as he might appear indecisive or willing to sacrifice his own integrity to be popular. To make things worse, every day of delay makes it less likely that his desired course of action will do any good.


You’ll have days like that, when life throws something at you that you never saw coming, and you don’t have time to paint the vision or build buy-in with your team. Every one of those situations is different, so I only have one piece of advice for you: Never, ever compromise your own integrity. Do what you think is right, explain why you think it’s right, and always be consistent. Then, your detractors will have to challenge you on values, not on actions.


Trust comes from walking your own talk. Down the road your team will likely forget the details. They’ll never forget it if you take the easy path against your own conscience.