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

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.