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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Let Your Team Set the Standards

I once heard an outstanding talk by Mike Krzyzewski, legendary men's basketball coach at Duke University. Krzyzewski also coached a couple of men's basketball teams for the Olympics. He talked about getting all those superior athletes, the leaders of their own teams, to play as a team and accept roles that sometimes were relatively minor.

His technique? At the very first meeting, he asked the whole team, "What are our rules?" And they'd hash out expectations for practices, attending meetings, being on time, behavior during free time. All the rules a team has to have.

The magic here, Coach K says, is that the team decides, and then the team has ownership and the team holds each other accountable. "Hey, look, guys. We all agreed that if we're going to meet our goal of Olympic gold, this is what we have to do." Krzyzewski rarely had to say anything.

I've tried this on a couple of different teams, not always successfully. If you have anyone in your group who's prone to skate, who just wants to do the minimum to get by, this will lead to a lot of conflict. But when all of your team members want to grow and achieve, it works like a dream. And it takes the ego out of things, because rather than following you they're keeping standards they set themselves.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

When Good People aren't Team People

I remember one of the best workers I ever had. I fired him.

This guy was a barn-burner. He was at work every day, early most of the time. He worked every minute he was there, and he was fast and accurate. On top of that, he took short breaks and got back to work fast. I never checked, but it wouldn't surprise me if he got as much work done as two other people, and his work was good work.

The problem was, he was disruptive. You know the term "loose cannon?" It comes from the days the Navy used sailing ships, and cannons mounted on wheels. Those cannons were controlled by men pulling on ropes. If a cannon got away from its crew, you had hundreds of pounds of iron and wood crashing around the deck, wherever the roll of the ship took it. You can imagine the chaos and damage.

My guy was a loose cannon. He knew he was good, so he thought he was essential. He was contemptuous of everyone else. He wouldn't listen to his supervisor. He didn't care what another team member might need from him at the moment. He didn't even care what company policies or government regulations said, he did his job his way. In then end, he broke my team back into a bunch of individual workers. No cooperation, no shared goals, and a lot of back-biting. Everyone was looking out for number one.

When you have a person like that, send him or her down the road. The longer you wait, the more work and time it will take to rebuild the team afterward. And the sooner you do, the more powerful the message that being a team player is more valuable than being an outstanding loner.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What to do When You're Wrong

I’m sure it’s happened before, and I know it will happen again. Just as I have so often, you’re going to be wrong. Now what?

Well, first is a big don’t. Don’t act like it didn’t happen. Don’t hide it or cover it up. Your team will figure it out; in fact, they’re likely to know before you do. So they’re watching to see how you handle it.

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to apologize. Often just correcting yourself is enough. “Hey, guys, I said this, but when I dug into it, turns out that’s not right. Here’s what I found out.” That kind of thing builds trust, and gives them permission to correct themselves too.

If you argued with someone about it, or you caused someone extra work, then you do need to apologize. “I shouldn’t have argued with so-and-so. She was right, and I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Or, “I blew it and made you guys do a bunch of unnecessary work. I’m sorry.” You can’t undo it, but you can own up to it, which at least lets everyone know you care.

Better still is if you can tell them something you’ve done to make sure you won’t make a similar mistake next time.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Leading with Your Time Off

One of the more counterintuitive things I had to as a commander in the field was to develop a sleep plan. But without one, when we were in 24-hour operations, I would work too long and sleep too little, and eventually my decisions would get worse and my leadership would too. Worse, all those eager young officers who were watching me to see what good leadership looks like would do the same thing, and eventually we would have all these great troops being led by a bunch of zombies.

There’s a holiday lesson for all of us civilian leaders here, and it’s this: Take time off. Be with your family and friends. Give plenty of time to celebration, whatever that means to you.

Why? Because that’s the only way your team will feel free to do the same. You can tell them to go home, but if you’re still sitting in your office or still out on the floor, you’re just making them feel guilty. You make them think they’re not as committed as they could be.

We all need time away to be our best selves at work, especially leaders. The heroes on your team aren’t the ones who never use their vacation days, so don’t be that person. Instead, model what work-life balance really looks like. In the end, balanced team members do the best work.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

If You Don't Mean It, Don't Say It

A former boss often said, “If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.” That’s a great saying for leaders, because few things break trust with team members as fast as insincerity.

You can fake things for a little while - like acting enthusiastic when you really think this new initiative is the dumbest thing ever - but not for long. Eventually your folks will pick up on what you really think. When that happens, they wonder why you didn’t just say so. They wonder what else you haven’t been honest about.

That’s why my old boss had it right: “If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.” If you can’t honestly say, “This thing that corporate wants is a great thing,” find something else that you do believe. Maybe, “Look, I don’t quite see it but people who get paid more than me, and who pay us, think it’s important. So we’re going to do it and do it well because that’s the kind of team we are.”

A team member’s trust is one of the most precious gifts they can give. It’s also an easy thing to throw away and, once you’ve done that, good luck getting it back.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Generations Take 2

I wrote last time about some of the differences between generations, noting that these are mostly generalities that may or may not be true about your team members. What is true, though, is that there are some conflicts between generations that seem to crop up a lot. See if any of these sound familiar.

Young person: I want to make friends at work. Old guy: All this socializing wastes time.
Young person: Work should be more fun. Old gal: Stop screwing around!
Young person: I have an idea. Old guy: You haven’t been around long enough to have ideas.

These conflicts grow out of the different ways team members view work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to think the best work is done collaboratively, that work should be more than a drudge, and that everyone contributes equally.

Change has to happen with your older team members - the young ones will just leave if you ask them to sit down, be quiet and keep busy. Your Gen Xers and Baby Boomers need to be encouraged to get to know the new kids, ask their opinions, talk about the work, lighten up. It won’t be natural, but it’s necessary, because your younger team members have choices and the freedom to move.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Generations Take 1

I kind of want to call baloney on all the recent hype on the differences between generations, because your team members are people, not statistics. All the studies are data-crunching that yields some trends that may or may not be true of your people.

That said, there are some things that seem to be true more often than not. Younger employees are more social, more likely to use social media, and more concerned with knowing why. Older employees are more likely to be nose to the grindstone, and less happy about someone telling them what to do.

The lesson here: your employees all have different goals, and want different things from you and your organization. It’s your job to know each team member, know why they work, what they value, how to set them up for success, and what makes a good experience for them.

Yes, that means you have to spend time with them, you have to talk, you have to observe. But that’s what leaders do. We’re a long way past treating them all like identical cogs in the wheel. If you don’t want to put in the time, then you don’t really want to lead, you just want followers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Fastest Improvement is Slow Change

If you want change to work, it's best to go slow.

I remember my first day in South Korea. I couldn't buy coffee; I couldn't even tell which places might sell coffee. I couldn't hail a cab. Forget about getting anything done, all I thought about was feeding myself and putting a roof over my head. And I learned a key leadership lesson: When everything changes, people shift into survival mode and work slows to a crawl.

Your best bet: Change one thing at a time. Change process flow, and then when that becomes normal, reassign people, for example. If you do both simultaneously, you're asking for chaos.

There's something I used to tell soldiers when they were trying to learn to do something quickly under pressure: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. When you try for speed, you're more likely to make mistakes that just cost you time.

Take it slow, things will go smoothly, and overall the pace of change in your area will speed up.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

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?”

Planning for adjustments 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.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Broken Communication

I just watched some classic bad leadership in a conversation between two managers and a technician. All three were trying to solve a problem, but in the end they all left mad.

The issue: a customer's second bad experience with a bad product. Certainly something managers have a right to ask about. But here's what went wrong: the way they asked was, "Have you done this? Could you try that?" They sounded like they didn't think the technician was trying very hard, or maybe just wasn't competent.

And here's the predictable outcome: the technician finally said, "Look, why don't you guys do it yourselves." That push-back made the managers feel like he's arrogant and not a team player.

Ironically, both sides wanted the same thing: for the other to have confidence in them. Neither got it. And the customer isn't any better off, either.

The lesson is that communication as much about how you say things than what you say. Managers could ask, "Help me understand what you're doing." The technician could say, "Let me ease your concern by explaining how thorough I've been." Same concerns, different words, but the team would still be intact.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Vision: How do They See What Isn't Visible?

OK,  we know as leaders that it's our job to set the vision for our team. The problem is, how can we get them to see something that exists primarily in our own heads?

The only tools you have are words. Maybe if your vision is very small ("Let's work towards a new refrigerator!") a picture could work, but any meaningful vision is beyond that. So here's the rule painting a vision with words: They have to be concrete.

Concrete is the opposite of abstract: it means something that can be physically described. Your vision is abstract, so your description of it has to be easily seen in the mind's eye.

So don't say "Our vision is to delight customers," say, "We want our customers so happy they tell other people." Don't say, "We should strive for a zero-defect environment," say, "If we do our jobs right we can get rid of the scrap bins, and our complaint system." 

Your team can picture a time they got such good service. They can visualize the shop without the scrap bins and all the work that goes with them. Those are concrete images, and they're what you need to help them see an abstract vision.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The hard thing

Vivid memory: I was leading a quartering party (a small advance team that secures a new place for a command post). After maybe 30 minutes, security was out, comms were up, my tactical assessment was done, the perimeter defenses had been sited, and my soldiers were hard at work. So I moved on to the next priority: machinegun emplacement. I got an entrenching tool, jumped into a 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 of a key leadership truth: you reap huge credibility dividends if institutional memory includes images of you dirty from doing the worst jobs.

When you do the hard thing, there are some invaluable outcomes:
1. You understand at 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 become a better leader.