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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Leading Through Transition

Change is constant, especially with your team. People leave, people come. Usually it’s not a big deal, but sometimes you have to transition a key person. Success then comes down to two things: training and expectations.

Training is more administrative than leadership, so it doesn’t need a lot of attention here. Suffice it to say the more training you can do with the outgoing person, the better.

Expectations, though, take some thought. Are they the same for the new person? Sometimes you end up with less experience and you want to lower expectations. Sometimes a new hire is a chance to up your game. No matter what you do, though, your team, and others, will expect the same things from the new person.

If you want transitions to succeed, and new people to acclimate quickly, you have to be very deliberate about thinking through what your expectations are, and then making sure your team has the same expectations. That way, the new guy or gal doesn’t get conflicting signals.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It May Be Your Fault They're Lazy

A colleague of mine is frustrated with the slackers on his team. Truth is, I have a couple too. But as we talked it through, we realized we were to blame.

First, we wondered where they got the idea that they can get away with slacking off. The answer: Us. We’re the ones who set the standards for our teams. If somewhere along the line slacking off got to be OK, it’s because we let the standard slip. 

Second, we realized that sometimes they just don’t have anything to do. There’s no demand for their work. In that case, we don’t have work flow balanced very well. That’s our job too, to make sure there’s the right amount of labor to keep every step of the process moving. Not enough, and someone waits (and looks lazy). Too much, and someone stands around (and looks lazy).

There are a few people in the world who will actively try to evade work, but I don’t think there are many. Instead, the ones you think are lazy more likely fall into the two categories described above: the opportunists, who just don’t work any harder than you make them, and the ones who run out of work. Either way, you can fix it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Get It Right

There’s a thing we say at the plant: If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

That’s a good concept for almost any kind of work, but it has special significance for leaders. That’s because there are a lot more questions than just how to redo the work.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to retrain your team to the standard? Your example is their permission; when they see you compromise, that becomes the new standard. So think about it the next time you’re tempted to not go back and get your safety glasses, or to skip that call to the customer.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do the corrective action? When you’re the leader, your lowered standards can result in process lapses, and sometimes someone else catches it. In that case, you might be ordered to fix it, or required by a customer to document you fixed it. Or even pay a regulatory agency a fine and then still have to fix it.

The fastest, most effective and most efficient way to lead is to do the right thing, always. Any so-called short-cut will only require you to come back later on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Leading When You Don't Feel It

Let’s be honest. Some days you just don’t feel like leading. The goal doesn’t inspire you, life outside work seems more engaging, you just don’t have the energy. Summertime especially we can all be vulnerable to days like that.

The first thing to do is remind yourself that you owe it to your team and your organization to lead. Now is the time for your discipline to take over; you have to do it no matter how you feel. That means you have to act as if. Do all the same things, even if you don’t feel the same passion.

It also can help just to focus on the next intermediate goal. Now is not the time for long-range planning, or recasting the vision. Trust the planning and vision-setting you did earlier, and just execute the next step. That will greatly simplify the mental part of leading.

Finally, cut yourself some slack. Instead of swinging for the fence, trying to connect on that home-run ball, just make solid contact and get a base hit. Someone once said, “Never try something vast with a half-vast attitude.” Some days, you need to give yourself permission just to tackle that one day as best you can.

The key, though: Don’t let yourself stay in this place very long. A few days while you cope with something else or regain your mental juice is OK. But if you’re thinking of mailing it in all summer, you need to do a gut check on whether you really want to lead at all.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

You're Not Using Your Best Motivational Tool

Write down the name of every team member you thanked for something in the last two days. What percent of your team is on that list?

If you wrote more than half of them, you’re an unusual person. Most of us reserve “Thank you” for people we need to ask things from, not for those we have authority over. And that, my friends, is the biggest danger with authority.

Because you should never have to use your authority to get team members to do things. Any normal worker will do his or her job because it’s the right thing to do. And if you want them to go above and beyond, then you should ask, not order.

And say thank you. If a team member ever does something that makes a difference (and they all do, all the time, or you shouldn’t have them on the team) then you’re wrong if you don’t acknowledge that. 

I struggle with this, because I’m old school. But the truth is that all of us just want someone to appreciate what we do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Let Them Tell You

Here’s a technique that’s so simple leaders seldom use it: Let them say what they’ll do. Then hold them to it.

I use this in most disciplinary situations, but it works other places too. When I have to discipline, I first tell the person why we’re talking - for example, “Packaging Line Two was idle for most of the morning yesterday because you were absent from your mill.” Note that this is a simple statement of what the bad thing was and what I believe the cause to have been.

I then ask them to explain, and listen while they do so. I may ask a few questions to clarify my or their understanding. And then I ask what they’re going to do to prevent a recurrence. We agree on something that should work, and then I ask them to write it down and sign it.

Only then do I talk about consequences, for this occurrence and the next. Consequences are completely separate from solutions, and probably less important.

The reason I like this method is that in all future cases we talk about a commitment that person made, not orders I gave. It eliminates a lot of the conversation right from the start. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

When Priorities Change

What’s the most critical thing your team has to get done today? If you haven’t thought about that question today, you probably don’t know. In that case, you’re still working a plan you made sometime in the past, and some factors may have changed. 

Change is most likely to come from two kinds of things: opportunities and crises. The common characteristic of the two is they can pop up at any time, and they don’t care about your plans.

So you need to have a habit and a process to keep up with the pace of change in your organization. My habit is to spend the last 15 minutes of the day reviewing the plan for the rest of the week. To know if changes are needed, I look at new orders in the system, and communication from salesmen, owners or key managers. 

It’s as simple as this: has demand (what we need to do) or capacity (the resources we have to do it) changed? If either has, you need to rethink tomorrow’s work, and likely someone’s number one thing is going to change.

If you don’t deliberately do this, some days your team is going to miss the most important thing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Don't Clog Your Bandwidth

We’ve all had it - that moment when, in your impatience, you get too many things going over the Wifi and everything slows to a crawl. When that happens to me, I picture several large people all trying to push through a doorway simultaneously. That’s a good mental picture of what’s happening with my data stream.

Just like the Internet, leaders have only so much bandwidth. Just like the Internet, available bandwidth might depend on contextual factors. For that reason, you need to be selective in how you task your bandwidth.

There are some things only you can do. There are some things others could do, but you should. Those two kinds of things should get your first and best time and energy.

Then there are those things that anyone could do but you maybe like to do. Beware of those; they’ll suck your time away in a hurry. They’re the work equivalent of Twitter. And finally, there are things that you want to poke your nose into that really aren’t your job. Those not only waste your time, but damage your relationships as well.

My rule of thumb: I plan only for the first two, the things only I can do or the things that I should do instead of someone else. The other stuff will clamor for my attention, and get it if I don’t already have my time planned around the good stuff.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When Trust is Breached

I’m coaching a supervisor through a tough thing right now. He observed one of his team out fishing when he was supposed to be home sick. He didn’t say anything to the person, but came to me with his anger and frustration.

He’s angry because he trusted the guy. He’s frustrated because a missing team member affects the whole team. 

I’m coaching him again about the basics of work relationships: honest communication, and accountability.

He needs first to talk it all out with his team member. He needs to tell him what he saw, how he came to see it, and how it was different that expected. He needs to be fair but explicit about how this person’s behavior affected the team, and how it makes it hard to trust. And then he needs to listen just as long as he talked, to give his team member a chance to explain, respond and, hopefully, agree to responsibility.

But here’s the hard part: after all that, if possible, he needs to motivate his team member to hold himself accountable. Accountability that comes from the boss will only be effective as long as the boss is watching. True accountability comes from a person’s own sense of how their behavior affects things they care about, things like their friends or their career. That kind of accountability comes from seeing clearly the consequences of losing trust.

If successful, my supervisor will end up with a team member who no longer wants to play hookie because he understands it isn’t worth the potential bad outcomes. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Option B

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, is said to have a sign in her office that reads, “Let’s kick the s— out of option B.” That quote allegedly came from a friend whose life took an unexpected turn for the worse.

I like it for two reasons. First, it recognizes the reality that your plan A isn’t always going to work. Second, it focuses all the same energy and enthusiasm onto plan B. It says that we might have lost a battle, but we still intend to win the war.

We all want to take the direct, easy route to our goals, but sometimes life doesn’t let us do that. Sometimes we even get pushed past option B to C or even D. At those times we have a choice. We can get discouraged, or we can get to work.

As leaders, we can’t afford to get discouraged. If we do, we’ll drag our teams down, and it will take a lot of work to pep them back up again. So we need to do a couple of things for our teams. We need to always have an option B. And, when the time comes, we have to show just as much enthusiasm for that second choice as we did for our first. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Know Who You're Talking To

I used to think that it was dishonest to change my message as I interact with different people. I wanted to be myself and expected everyone to either like it or lump it.

With some gray in my hair, I’ve come to realize that the ability to adapt communication to other people is critical. In leadership, most conversations are about sharing ideas and encouraging behaviors. In both cases you really need to make it as easy as possible for people to get it.

That’s why you always have to think about who you’re talking to, and talk in the best way to be heard. That best way is based on what they value. People will always plug into their own values; only the most altruistic will go through the work of plugging into yours.

So when you’re talking to your boss, you talk about organizational goals. When you’re talking to your peers, you talk about helping them solve their problems. When you’re talking to your team, you appeal to what they want out of the work. For some that’s self-fulfillment. For others, it might be security in the status quo, or the excitement of change.

This isn’t cynical button-pushing. It’s recognition that everyone has different reasons for why they show up every day. All you’re doing is showing them all why doing the right thing is the right thing for everyone.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Handling Drama

Interpersonal drama is one of my least favorite things, but my team is made up of people so sometimes I just have to deal with it. In fact, I just finished leading my team through a situation that, even though it seemed like middle-school stuff to me, could have become a hostile workplace complaint.

Here are a couple of things I was reminded of.

Don’t add fuel to the fire. I was tempted to do some venting of my own. That just adds to the drama, though. You kill a fire by removing fuel and oxygen; you end drama the same way. You need to be the consistent, calm weight that smothers the passion.

Don’t let them get historical. The people involved want to point out every negative thing the other guy ever did, going back to the start of time. There’s no purpose to that. I said, “Look, everyone has flaws. Let’s talk about today.” Keep the focus very tightly on the incident at hand.

Go back to commonly accepted values. In my case, I leaned heavily on the company’s respect policy. “Remember, everyone deserves to be treated with respect. You need to do that even when you’re hurt.”

Finally, give it some time. No one can keep up a full head of steam forever, so a cooling-off period can be a big help. I separated some folks for a few days, and reminded them of expectations and consequences before I put them back together.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Don't Give Unspoken Permission

I’m coaching through a problem today: some team members saw an executive walking a friend to his car. The man was smoking, and we have a no-smoking campus. And several of my team smoke.

The old saying “monkey see, monkey do” doesn’t really apply to employees except for this. If they ever observe you pushing the envelope as far as rules go, they’ll take that as permission. If they get called on it, after all, they can just point at you.

That’s why I hold myself to a much stricter standard as far as rules go than I do my team. I know that seems backward. After all, isn’t rank supposed to have its privileges? But the way I see it, I’d rather cut them some slack and have them see it as kindness, than have them see me do something I won’t permit them to do.

It’s about obligations. I have an obligation to my organization to see that rules are followed, at least in spirit. I also have an obligation to my team to treat them fairly. So I give them a break when I can, but they know it’s an exception because they never see me doing it. It builds trust, and leaders can’t lead without trust.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crisis and Influence

Much like recessions, crises should never be allowed to go to waste. Both are negative, but offer the opportunity for positive growth. For leaders, a crisis is a chance to make huge strides in building influence.

The reason is simple: When everything falls apart, most people vapor-lock, at least to some extent. It takes a little time for the fear to ease and the shock to wear off. During that time, those emotions make people desperate for leadership. Whoever sounds like the voice of reason will immediately gain followers, meaning they gain influence.

So a couple of suggestions. First, know your immediate action drill. This is the first two or three things you’re going to do in a crisis. Have a plan to calm and reassure your team. Have some ideas to keep them busy while you figure out what’s going on, get guidance as needed, put a plan together.

But the other thing is, don’t freak out. Stay calm. Keep your voice down. Even if you don’t know what to do, don’t be scared of that fact. You’ll figure it out, but not if you’re not calm. Plus, seeing you calm will calm everyone else, and focus their eyes on you. And they’ll look for you the next time.

After 25 years of training and operations as a military officer, there are a few comments that I still treasure more than a decade later. One of them was on my efficiency report as a company commander: “I’ve never seen CPT Steggerda get excited. He keeps his cool.” Every time I did that, I gained influence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Be True to Yourself

At my workplace our senior management group has all taken one of those strengths evaluations. This particular one uses an intensive questionnaire to identify your five greatest strengths out of an array of 30 or more.

Interestingly, the 20 of us who took it collectively cover almost all of those strengths. None of us had the same top five. The most any one strength was present was in half of us. The big takeaway for me: There is amazing variety in the kinds of people who can lead well.

I’ve touched on this before, but you’ll be the most effective for your team and the happiest in your work if you intentionally lead in your own way. Small forests of trees have gone into the pages written on the topic, but for you, it’s all just context. Read to get ideas, but listen to yourself when you lead. The more natural and enjoyable a technique feels, the closer you’re getting to the real you.

My wife is a natural leader; she doesn’t study it or even call herself a leader. She’s very empathetic and selfless, a great relationship builder and one of those encouragers who pulls the best out of everyone. I’m more of a strategist, planner, and overt coach. I lead from in front; she leads from the middle of the group. We’re both good at it, but she might be better.

To lead, you have to set a vision, get people to see it, and move them toward it. How you do that is a very personal thing, so be true to yourself, not an imitator of someone else.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Give Them a Mission

A veteran sergeant, tasked with teaching me how to lead as a young lieutenant, once said, “The thing that will solve most problems is a mission.”

Mission is Army-speak for a goal, a job that has to get done. And he was right. I discovered again and again that whenever there was drama in my team, whenever the energy level got low, whenever team members were worried about the future, I could fix it with work.

Work does some good things. It occupies minds and hands. It accomplishes things that can bring satisfaction. It gives a feeling of demand, meaning someone somewhere needs what you do. Beyond that, a mission focuses work on an immediate need. People set aside differences and their own concerns to respond. 

So when you sense team unity is starting to fray, or focus is lapsing, find a mission. “Guys, if we want to avoid overtime this summer we have to build some inventory now. Here’s my targets.” “Team, one of our important customers will be out of product on Monday if we can’t somehow get them some.” “We can serve this new client need if we figure out X.” “We’ll be more environmentally friendly if we can change this process.”

Keep them focused and moving ahead, and you won’t have to deal with the drama.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


I know these days we’re all about empowerment, but I still think one of the basic things every leader owes his or her team is a decision.

I’m not talking about things like when breaks are taken or what to work on first (if there’s not a required sequence). On those things you do want to step back and allow team members to mold their workdays the way they like them.

But someone has to decide what the goal is. Someone needs to set strategy. Someone needs to make the call when things don’t fit normal procedures. Those kinds of things set the context for your team to work.

Want your team to be effective? Then don’t hesitate to make the call when you come to a fork in the road. Sure, get some input. But empowerment is letting them choose how they move ahead. Part of empowerment is being clear about which direction to move.

Wondering what’s next is a key source of frustration or stress. You need to keep that period of uncertainty as short as possible. Don’t wait for a consensus or a sign from above. You decide. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Not Drawing Dot-to-Dots

I remember pushing my company commander for more guidance. I felt he hadn’t given me enough information that I knew what he expected from my platoon. When I asked what route he wanted us to take to our assigned position, he said, “I don’t care how you get there, just be there.”

These days I think of that incident whenever I get hung up on intermediate objectives. I’m a backwards planner: I plan the end state first, and then work from there to determine what will be needed. In the end, I have intermediate objectives, goals that, if accomplished in sequence, will bring my team to the result I want.

The thing is, though, we’re not drawing dot-to-dot diagrams. It doesn’t matter if our route to success goes through my objectives or not. The only point of the objectives is the end goal; they’re a useful guide to get us moving in the right direction.

So don’t worry too much if your team misses a progress report, or Googles a formula instead of doing research, or figures out they can skip a step or do a test later. Are they moving toward the goal? Then it’s all good. 

My advice: present intermediate objectives or goals as one way to do it. Spend most of your time describing what you want in the end. If they find a different way there, what does it matter?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Focus Brings Clarity

Dan Rockwell, author of Leadership Freak (you can read it on WordPress and I recommend you do), wrote something that struck a cord this morning. “Control your focus because your focus controls you.”

He was writing about the impact what you focus on will have on how your team feels and reacts. I thought, though, of focus as a tool of clarity.

You see, your focus is visible. Your significant other, if you have one, can tell instantly where your focus is, and especially if it isn’t on him or her. Your team can tell, too, if you’ve left the building even if you’re still in your chair. Or worse yet, if you’re attention is jumping from one thing to another at work.

There is only one number-one thing. There are only a small handful of priorities - if you have more then nothing is really a priority. Don’t lose your focus. When your team starts seeing the alligators crawling out of the water, they need to see you still locked in on the objective of draining the swamp.

Clarity is that clear understanding of what the team is doing and why. They get it from you, partly from the words you say, but mostly from where they see you focused. So control your focus, as Mr. Rockwell says. It not only controls you, it controls your team.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

How to Eliminate Whining

I call it whining. Our HR director says that’s insensitive. We’re both right.

I think people whine when they gripe but don’t do anything about it. He thinks they wouldn’t gripe if they didn’t have legitimate beefs. As I considered that, it led me to a solution that’s been working pretty well.

I wanted to set an expectation that recognizing a problem brings with it a responsibility to work toward a solution. Some people do that naturally, but not most. I realized that if that’s what I want my team to be like, they need a pretty robust problem-solving toolkit.

So I did two things. First, I made it as easy as possible for team members to log a problem and recommend a fix. There’s a drop box, an online form, an email address, and they can verbally tell me any time I walk through. I have the process down to two sentences, as short and sweet as they want to make it.

Next, I carved out a budget. If their proposed fix makes sense, they can go ahead and fix it. If not, we put a little work group together to find a better answer. Either way, there’s already resources available.

Whining just doesn’t happen around here anymore. Instead, a lot of problems get solved. And solved quickly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Truth Will Set You Free

To succeed as a leader, you have to be open to input. It’s critical that you make yourself approachable, and that you listen to feedback.

Why? It’s the only way to know the truth. The opposite is being convinced you’re right. But the problem with that is it keeps you from checking if you’re really right. 

You will always react to the world as you perceive it and not as it really is. However, the more open you are to information, ideas and criticism, the closer your perception will be to the actual truth. And the closer those two things are, the better your decisions will be. Which will build credibility and trust with your team.

Here are a couple of good habits to follow. First, frequently ask people, “Where do I have it wrong?” Actually invite and encourage them to point out your errors. The earlier and more frequently you do this, the better.

Second, create a culture of fact-checking. “We believe X to be true, but someone check it.” How many widgets an hour does that line really make? Is that restaurant really open for lunch on Tuesdays? What is our turnover rate really?

These two things will go a long way toward turning your team from a bunch of yes-people into truth-hunters. And regardless of what you eventually do, it’s always best to know the truth.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


I’m not a fan of the word tolerance, at least as it’s used socially and politically. When most people say that word, they want their thing tolerated but reserve the right not to tolerate an opposing viewpoint. But when you’re building a team, tolerance is not on a virtue, it’s a requirement.

As a leader, you need to tolerate almost any differences. Most of them don’t have any impact on the work or the team, so the workplace needs to be indifference to creed or lifestyle. Only what impacts other team members is in bounds for you to address.

But you also need to tolerate failure. Why? Because no one learns without it. A person who never fails is someone who never tries anything new. And because failure shows you where the weak places are in your processes. And also because if you don’t, people will stop confessing failure and you’ll never know why something went wrong.

Intolerance toward failure, often seen in the pursuit of so-called “zero-defect environments,” will, in my opinion, actually increase the frequency of failures. That happens because you don’t have a safe environment for people to explore what went wrong and how to get better. 

Being tolerant in general will let you focus your coaching on things that really matter, things that make people better. And your team will work better too.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Less Preparation

I’m not a fan of sound bites - most of the time they’re too simplistic, and they often hide a lack of understanding of complex things. One example is something I hear frequently: “You’re either preparing or repairing.” 

I disagree. I think the best leaders have a bias toward action, not prep. I think the best plan is the good one that’s acted on now, not the great one that will take another month to perfect. Too many leaders bog down in crafting the perfect vision statement, the best possible long-range goals, and the most intricately detailed plan. They become masters of project software and PowerPoint and budgets, while their teams trudge along doing the same old things.

My preference is to prepare enough to get started, and then reinforce success as I go. I plan the first phase in detail, shape the rest in broad brush strokes, and then identify the decision points that will arise. When I near those decision points, I plan what’s next based on real-world factors, not planning projections. The key is to prepare enough that we can go wherever we’re winning.

My rule of thumb is that doing should get at least 75% of my time. Anything less puts a burden on my team.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Leaders vs Others

Without thinking about it, state your role on your team in one simple sentence. 

If you said, “My job is to make sure people are getting their work done,” you see yourself as a watchdog. That implies a lack of trust in the team, and little value-added in your role.

If you said, “My job is to allocate resources,” you see yourself as a manager, someone who gets the most out of the team. You’re going to automatically focus on efficiencies.

If you said, “My job is to make execute the policies my bosses have,” you’re an administrator, put on the team to perpetuate the status quo and follow the rules.
Only if you said, “My job is to make my team better,” do you really see yourself first and foremost as a leader. It’s usually a self-identified role. Your bosses and management are going to talk to you about the first three tasks, and you’ll always have to do some of those. But as a leader your first love, best time and most energy has to be focused on growing people.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reasonable Choice

Everyone agrees that we need to empower our teams, but in practice it’s hard to do. Empowerment is mostly about choice, but freedom of choice actually won’t help most people. Research suggests that when we have too many choices, we delay choosing, make worse choices, and are less satisfied with our choices once we make them.

The key is to offer a reasonable array of reasonable choices. Reasonable array, meaning three or four, enough options to truly offer a choice but not so many they are hard to compare. Reasonable choices, meaning that they truly are distinct from each other and each offers some advantages. In other words, give them a handful of good options.

For example, if you tell a team member she can work whatever schedule she wants, that’s a hard choice with almost infinite possibilities. She’ll need a long time to evaluate everything and make a choice, and might just vapor-lock. But if you offer her a choice between five eight-hour days and four ten-hour days, you’ll probably have an answer quickly, and a more satisfied employee.

You’ll have happier employees if you keep choices to a manageable level.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Keeping Things Clear

“Clear as mud,” my sergeant said. As a young lieutenant, I thought he was just grumbling, but when the whole platoon did the wrong thing I knew better. My brilliant operations order didn’t communicate.

Patrick Lencioni, a noted author and presenter, once said, “Create, over-communicate and reinforce clarity.” Clarity is the absence of doubt or confusion. Clarity is complete understanding.

Here’s how you do that. First, keep things simple. Every wrinkle you add to the plan raises questions. “When do we do that? Is that me or someone else? Why?” Fewer steps, normal processes, usual assignments - those things are clear.

Next, keep telling people. You think they got it, they think they got it. But someone doesn’t, and for the rest hearing it once more won’t hurt. I do this by walking the floor, asking people if their inputs are what they expected, reminding them what the folks downstream expect to see.

Then, when they’re getting it right, don’t change. Keep your expectations and message consistent. State your vision in the same words. On good teams, the vision statement is so well known it starts being fodder for jokes. Where I work, the phrase is “customer delight.” When demand increases, people say, “There’s sure a lot of customer delight going on.” When something goes wrong they say, “That doesn’t look like customer delight.”

The clearer your intent, the more likely everyone on your team will work to your intent. But just like windows, clarity is muddied by life. It needs constant attention.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Let Them Teach You

I learned a couple of decades ago that there’s something most teenagers can do that I can’t: dispense an attractive self-serve ice cream cone. I keep in my head an image of one of my more disastrous attempts to remind me that everyone I meet can do things I can’t.

That includes my team members. Learning is fun, and letting team members teach honors them. You can use this in three ways with your team.

First, ask about interests. I spent an enjoyable session with a guy who told me all about building ham radios and educated me on all the ways ham operators have and do help us. Now we chat often, and it’s easy to approach him about work.

Second, learn more about the work. When you ask them to teach you their jobs, you get a very intimate understanding of the impacts of your decisions. For example, it seems simple in my office to decide to relabel a batch of paint, but after they walked me through that job, I’m careful about agreeing to it - it’s a lot of work, and rework at that.

Third, it’s a good way to fix things. Go to the point of the problem and ask the nearest employees to show you what’s going on. Not only will they know of subtle causes and effects no one else does, chances are they already have a solution in mind.

Letting them teach you is a textbook win-win scenario.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Be, Know, Do

There are three categories of leadership competencies. Technical competencies make you good at the work your team does. Knowledge competencies make you good at figuring things out and fitting the work into the bigger picture. Ethical competencies make you a trustworthy person. The Army calls this approach to personal growth Be-Know-Do.

I think the most critical area of competency for leaders is ethical, for a very simple reason: if your team doesn’t trust you, they won’t follow no matter how much you know or can do. 

Some leaders are very successful even though they can’t do any of the things their team does. No leader is ever successful over time if the team thinks he or she lacks character.

I use the Be-Know-Do framework for personal development, but these days most of my goals are Be goals. I’ve found that by focusing on being a better person, my leadership grows too. And I become the kind of person who naturally grows in knowledge and technical competence too, just by being diligent about what matters to the team.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

With Reports, Less is More

I have a love-hate relationship with reports. On the one hand, I need some way to know how we’re doing. On the other, I cringe at the time other people spend creating those reports, and it’s easy to get bogged down in data. So I’ve come up with a few simple rules for when I want my team to report information to me.

* I only ask for information they have to collect anyway. Process data, work hours, stuff like that they already gather. Ambient temperature maybe they don’t, so if I want that I find a different source.
* I allow them to report in the format they already use. It’s better for me to adapt to their different styles than force them to transcribe data into my preferred format.
* I only ask for information that matters. I need to keep track of overtime hours because of expense tracking, but I don’t need to know if an employee is tardy. That’s for the supervisor to manage.
* I only ask for information I actually use. If I don’t use it when I get it, then I could better ask for it at the point I want it.

I’m convinced that most reports are at best only partially read, and even less used. You’ll do yourself and your team a huge service if you limit reporting only to what they know and control, and what you actually use to do your job.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Living the Dream

One reason you see so few good leaders is that true leadership requires two things not often found in one person: imaginative dreaming and disciplined planning. Military commanders start with a clear picture in their heads of what the end state will look like, and from that flows focused planning of every detail needed to achieve that vision.

Without a dream, you plan to sustain. You work on the status quo. Without a plan, a dream is just . . . well, a dream. It’s the plan than turns a dream into a vision of the future. 

People who aren’t moving don’t need a leader. Leaders move people from where they are now to a better state. Step one: what does that better state look like? That’s the vision. Step two: how will I get them there? That’s the plan. One way to check if you’re doing your team justice as a leader is ask those two questions. What’s my vision? What’s my plan?

The greatest value in a dream is when you lead your team to actually get there, to live it. Unless you’re working on that, your dream is just a daydream.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gentle Reminders

There’s a great quote I last saw attributed to Samuel Johnson: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” That’s some of the best coaching advice I’ve heard.

Most of your team members are adults, and most have been with you for a while. That means most of the time they know the right thing. So all you have to do is remind them.

Gentle reminders (“Hey, remember when we talked about . . . “) do some great things. They honor what the person already knows. They acknowledge that mistakes or deviations aren’t always malicious or even intentional. They keep the relationship on more of a peer level.

When you drop into teacher mode, you miss an opportunity. You communicate that you’re smarter than they are. When you lecture them on something they know, you make them feel like you don’t know them very well. You elevate yourself while pushing the team member down.

When you remind, you also give your team member an easy avenue to say, “I haven’t done that in a while; I need a refresher.” That’s them giving you permission to instruct. When they do that, they’ll listen a lot better.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Be Choosy About Choosing

For a long time, I thought one of the great benefits of being the leader was freedom of choice - I get to decide. With a little more life context, I don’t think that anymore. The best thing about leadership, if I do it right, is I get greater freedom from choice. 

There’s some great science out there that shows we can effectively make a limited number of good choices in a day. That’s why, at the end of a busy day, it can be hard to decide what to have for dinner. 

The key, then, as a leader, is to make sure you spend your juice on the choices that really matter, in terms of vision and goals. 

How? You have to create the context, and give permission, for your team to decide other things. Let them figure out schedules, decide how to serve a customer or client, resolve conflicts over radio stations and thermostat settings. That lets you focus on choices that move your team from here to their brighter future. 

There are two key parts of enabling. First, you have to coach your intent, the way you look at life and the organization and your goals. That enables them to know, at a minimum, which choices you probably wouldn’t make. Second, you have to clearly set their boundaries, so they know when they need to get you involved. Then, let them run.

If you can get there, you’ll find that making fewer decisions means you make better ones.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Choosing Like Your Team Would

You may struggle with the same thing I do. I’m often confident I know the right thing to do, and see leadership as convincing others I’m right. 

A couple of years ago at a seminar I heard Dr. Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia Business School, say this: “Effective leaders see choice through others’ eyes.” That quote guilted me into a lot of self-reflection. It has helped me take the time for some key questions.

What will this sound like to the team? Often what it will sound like is, “Great, someone else screwed up and we have to pay the price.” Or “No one cares how much work their great ideas cost us.” I need to make sure what they hear is “We’re needed for this, and valued because we can do it. We can really make a difference here.”

How does this reflect what the team values? Leadership is always more effective if it taps into mutually-agreed-upon goals. 

Does what I’m asking honor the team? I should never put the hard thing on them just to help out a peer or look good to a higher-up. Instead, I need to make sure the direction I want to go makes the team better in some way too.

It’s hard, but always take a minute before you speak to turn things around and imagine you’re standing there with your teammates hearing your boss say this to you. How would it make you feel? It’s an essential step to making sure what you do is actually leading.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Not Preparing to Succeed is Preparing to Fail

I once heard Urban Meyer, a fantastically successful football coach, say something that has stuck with me. He said, “I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn’t win.”

That statement challenges me, because I readily fall into the trap that most leaders do: I work my team, I don’t prepare it. I think that the best use of today’s time is to do today’s work. I don’t like to pull them away from productive tasks to train them.

When we prepare our teams, we usually do it for disasters or audits. We practice fire drills and emergency response actions, we brush up paperwork. How much resource do we allocate to getting our co-workers ready to exploit success, to innovate instead of react to change?

Preparation requires anticipation. What will my team need to do in the future? What skills will keep us effective as customer needs change? How can I get them ready for hard times?

Here’s my challenge: Find out what your organization’s near-term and long-term goals are. Then evaluate what capabilities your team will need to meet those goals, and to do business once they’re met. A simple gap analysis will show you where you need to start preparing them now.

Then boil it down to concrete skills. For example, if the goal is to support twice the sales volume through your warehouse, team members will need velocity and flow management techniques.

If Urban Meyer is right, not preparing to succeed is just preparing to fail.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Use Your Calendar For Success

In my last post I included the John Maxwell quote, “Success lies in your daily schedule,” and I promised to share how I use my calendar. So here’s what my weekly planning, which I do on Friday afternoons, looks like.

First, I have critical self-management activities permanently blocked on my schedule. These include times for planning, review, reading, and my faith. 

To start planning next week, I review the calendar to make sure all events are on it. I include my personal and family schedules. I also scan over the next month, to make sure this week prepares me and my team for what’s coming.

Next, I review and tweak the priorities of my work. Two of my top priorities are always coaching and what I call evangelizing, which is repeatedly reinforcing my vision for the future. I schedule time for my top priorities during the first three days of the coming week, including walk-arounds and time I want to spend with line employees on the plant floor. I leave Thursdays and Fridays as open as I can, because Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday won’t actually go as I planned, so I’ll need time to catch up.

Last, I review the calendar to be sure it’s appropriately balanced. To make this step easy, I use color coding to ensure that all of my team and my family have the right amount of time on my schedule. 

At the end of each day, I spend ten minutes reviewing what actually happened against what I’d planned, and I make necessary adjustments to the next day.

Here’s why it works for me: I don’t have to think about what to do or how to fill time. Every hour is blocked for something. If I just follow my calendar, I’ll do all the right things for success. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Those Ordinary Days

There are a lot of great leadership lessons to be drawn from the military, and from athletics. Here’s one that’s true in both of those arenas that I have to remind myself of daily: I become a leader when nothing’s going on; I prove I’m a leader when the crisis hits.

The ordinary days are when we develop our habits and train our skills. In his seminars and books John Maxwell often says, “The secret of success is in your daily schedule.” By that he means that what you habitually do, every day, determines what you become as a leader.

Here’s how your calendar can help you: it can reinforce daily habits. It can provide the framework to develop discipline. It can ensure you don’t forget things. And it can prompt you to take time for your own development. So if you don’t already use one, you should start. I’ll write later about how I use mine.

Here’s the bottom line: train as you’ll fight; train the way you’ll actually play the game. Use those ordinary days to develop and reinforce the habits of coaching, communication, planning and vision-setting that you’ll need on the bad days.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

You Are What You Do

You can’t be something different than what you do. You can say you love the environment but if you don’t recycle and monitor your carbon footprint you’re still an exploiter. You can say you’re healthy but if you smoke and eat too much, you’re not.

And you can say you’re a leader, you can want to be a leader, but what are you really doing? How do you choose to spend your day?

If you don’t spend time with your team, you’re not leading. If you don’t show them a vision of a better way, you’re not leading. If you don’t coach and model, you’re not leading. Bottom line, if they aren’t becoming something different and better because you’re there, you probably just supervising or administrating.

John Maxwell says, “The choice you make, makes you.” If you want to be a leader, or you have that responsibility, then choose leadership actions. Choose people over paper. View people as the priority, not the interruption. Be out among your team, not in your office.

A lot of people who claim to be leaders aren’t, because they don’t. The only way to be one is to get out there and lead.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Your Culture Isn't What You Say It Is

Our Safety Administrator at the plant just reminded me of a critical leadership truth. In challenging me on our safety record, he said, “You can’t say you have a safety culture if you’re not doing things safely.”

There’s a lot of chatter about culture, but what it comes down to is what are people doing? You can say you have a customer-first culture, or a family-oriented culture, but if people ignore a phone call because it’s break time or are afraid to ask for time off for Grandparents Day at school, you don’t.

Culture is defined by both saying and doing. It’s important as a leader to clearly state what the desired culture is. But then you have to coach it, you have to model it, you have to hold people accountable for it. You can’t ever allow a breach of culture to go unchallenged.

That’s the hard thing about culture: molding culture requires you to spend a lot of time with your people. But that’s what you should be doing anyway, if you’re really leading them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Speaking Social

Young leaders have an advantage over me. They are fluent in social.

What I mean by that is they can communicate as easily on Twitter, Snapchat, or whatever the new thing is that I haven’t even heard of yet. That’s an advantage, because every year a larger slice of the workforce communicates that way. Already nearly a third of our team members are Millenials or Gen Z. They may not use social media for everything, but they use it for enough things that you’re going to miss something if you don’t.

More critical, though, is the mindset behind it. They use social media because they want to always stay in touch. They fear missing something, and four hours is too long to go without an update.

Being fluent in social doesn’t just mean understanding social media. It means feeding that desire to always be connected. You have to start being just as chatty about your expectations and their workload as they are on Hangouts.

You can choose not to, but you’re going to lose the people who are your future.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Is Feeling Better Than Knowing?

“Go with your gut.” I heard that unlikely advice many times in my military career, where you would expect information gathering and careful analysis to drive decision-making. But experienced Army officers know well that at the end of the day, the data only takes you so far.

The reason for that is people. Every plan has to be executed by people. Every goal will be accomplished by people. Leadership is the art of moving people from where they are to a better place.

To do that, you have to leave the world of facts and rely a lot on your feels. Lead by intuition.

And now you’re thinking, “Hey, Greg, your last blog was all about the data.” My point there was you have to know the truth, you can’t let emotions blind you. My point here is that, within the context of the truth, you lead with emotions, not data.

People’s emotions kick in way faster than they understand, and people seek comfort first of all. As Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, put it, “People value feeling over knowing.” And you do too. You’re more likely to follow based on feelings like trust and loyalty than because what you’re doing has a 77% likelihood of helping 50% of your customers.

Once you have all the facts, you still have a choice about what to do. Go with your gut. Look at your people, think about your history together, and do what feels right for your team.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Uniquely Useful

You’ll never be a Colin Powell or Steve Jobs or Jack Welch. But there’s something you can excel at as a leader that none of them can.

What is it? I have no idea. You do, though. You know the thing that makes you uniquely you. It’s up to you to turn that into a leadership advantage.

Uniqueness usually comes from a combination of traits. I’m a weird mix of operator (usually data-drive, efficiency-focused, get-er-done people) and communicator (usually anecdotal and chatty). The leadership advantage I’ve been able to mold from that is a lot of clarity in my organization: I have very clear and concrete goals that I talk about all the time to everyone.

Marcus Buckingham, who helped develop StrengthsFinder, said, “There is no perfect leadership profile. Leadership is idiosyncratic. Techniques are not easily transferred.” In other words, while you can learn a lot by studying other leaders, chances are you can’t do what they do.

The what of leadership never changes: set the vision, communicate and motivate, and nurture your people. The how of leadership is almost infinitely variable. Not only are you free to do your own thing, doing your own thing will make you the best leader you can be.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Just the Facts, Ma'am

I like being with engineers and chemists, because they focus on the data. Sometimes I get really frustrated by engineers and chemists, because all they focus on is the data.

These days everyone is making a big deal out of emotional intelligence, which is your ability to understand people’s feelings. What gets lost in this focus on perception and emotion, though, is the truth.

As a leader, one of your key responsibilities is to find the truth. Despite what you’re told, truth isn’t relative. In any problem, there are a set of facts: times, dates, amounts, test results, process parameters, labor hours, dollars, contracts. If you don’t first of all find out what those are, and know what really happened or is happening, all the touchy-feely in the world isn’t going to help.

My recommendation is that the first thing you do is dig out the facts. Build a timeline. If you can graph it, do that. Anything to make the facts easy to see and understand. The facts will tell you what you’re really dealing with. And, in addition to getting you closer to the truth, focusing on data will chill out the emotions.

Then, when the time is right, you can use what actually happened to guide a conversation about how everyone feels.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Do You Know What They're Thinking?

There’s a big challenge every leader faces: how do you know what people are thinking?

The problem is, some of your team have ideas you need to hear. Others have objections you don’t know about. You think you have it all because you have meetings. You discuss things. You solicit input.

In any group, there are vocal people and silent people. There are introverts and extroverts. There are articulate people and people with simple vocabularies. And the chances are, what you think you know about your team’s opinions came from the vocal, articulate extroverts.

I once hear then-CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien say, “True leadership starts in the conversation. You have to get the truth on the table. You have to give a voice to everyone.”

That’s your job. At some point, quiet the vocal people and ask the silent ones. Calm the extroverts and draw out the introverts. Give the folks who aren’t fluent time and space to form their thoughts.

Until everyone speaks, you don’t know everything you need to know.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Do It the Way You Want to Tell It

Here’s an amazing piece of advice Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries, gave in a seminar: never make a choice that will make you a liar for life.

See, we make two kinds of choices. We do things we’re proud of, and we do things we don’t want people to know about. When we make the second kind of choice, we want to lie about it. Stanley says here’s the key question when you’re tempted to do the wrong thing: “What story do I want to tell?” Do it the way you want to tell it.

The leader’s version is, “How will I explain this to my team?” If the explanation you come up with is anything less than completely honest, then your choice may not be the best thing for them. Do it the way you’d want to explain it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Uncertainty is Why Leaders Exist

There’s a feeling I vividly associate with my memories of night patrols: total disorientation. Moving in total blackness and as silently as we could, my senses did me little good in providing me with context. Often the only thing I could see was the two little strips of luminous tape on the back of the helmet in front of me. I would lose track of time and direction, and start to think we must be lost.

It’s human nature to want to be able to see what’s ahead of you and have a map and compass for what’s out beyond the range of your eyes. We like traveling familiar routes. We hate the uncertainty of having no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s the deal, though: uncertainty is the only reason leaders are needed. Your team doesn’t need you if they already know where to go

Uncertain times are when you prove your worth. In fact, the more chaotic, the more you’re needed. There are learnable skills that will make you the master of chaos, but first you have to stop fearing it.

So instead of avoiding uncertainty, seek it out. You know it’s out there – key people leave, budgets dry up, customers go bankrupt, laws change. Your job is to know where uncertainty has reared its ugly head, and keep it from making your team anxious.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Lesson of the Ugly Chair

I spent some quality time over the holidays in an overstuffed chair, sometimes with a book and sometimes watching TV or playing a computer game. That chair has been around a long time; I think I bought it when my kids were just tykes; now both are married and I have grandchildren. it fits my behind pretty well, but it has seen its better days.

That chair reminds me of something Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries, said in a LeaderCast presentation a few years ago. Mr. Stanley suggested we try to look at our organizations as our replacement would. Try to imagine, he said, what the guy or gal who comes after you will get rid of, just like a new tenant in your apartment would junk that old ugly easy chair.

There’s a lot of truth there. We all have things we hang onto far beyond their usefulness. Sometimes we just don’t notice them anymore; often we’ve lived with them so long we don’t see how bad they’ve really gotten. Maybe it’s something we started, so it’s precious to us.

So look at your area the way your replacement would. What would he stop doing? What would she change or refurbish? What processes or practices or reports or meetings would be the hardest to explain or justify?

It’s something you ought to do every year, and the New Year is a natural time for evaluation. It will help you answer the question, “What will I do different this year to get a better result?”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Teams of Equals

There’s some new research that has some interesting implications for leaders and teams. Researchers found that mixing up students by capability when assigning group projects doesn’t work well for any of them.

The smart kids resent it because they think they’ll carry most of the load. The slowest kids expect to be carried, and odds are good at least one of the average kids will decide to skate. As a teaching technique, those teams taught a lot of the bad stuff we see on teams.

Now the smart folks are suggesting a better way: teams of equals. If you put together a team of high achievers, they’ll spark each other; this is where your innovative leaps will come from. A team of average workers will get a lot done, because there won’t be a “smart kid” to lean on. And a team of less experienced people may not get as much work done, but they’ll learn faster because they’ll all be engaged in noodling through it together.

It’s natural to want to put your sharp people with the new guys when assigning group work, but next time try teams of equals. They won’t all perform the same, but I’ll bet overall your team does better, and they’ll enjoy their work more too.