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

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.