Like many consultants, I sometimes struggle to follow the great advice I give other people. Okay, more than sometimes. The whole ‘physician, heal thyself’ thing comes along like a spiritual two-by-four upside my head pretty often.
But the situation where ‘do as I say, not as I do’ really gets my goat is during a leadership development engagement when the boss is uninterested or disengaged from the effort.
And I’m not talking about one-and-done engagements (I don’t do those). These are six- to twelve-month, multiple group- and individual-session engagements, so there are some talented people doing heavy lifting trying to be better leaders. But I know it will be an uphill slog when the CXO who signs my check wants the team to improve but doesn’t want to be involved.
For instance, a few years back I worked with the team of a CXO who complained that everyone – despite his best efforts – suffered from the same leadership shortcomings. It bears mentioning that these senior managers had exactly two things in common: they had the same boss, and they all breathed air.
I politely suggested to the CXO that if it smelled like dog crap everywhere he went, he should probably check his shoe, after which he made it clear that he was NOT one of the people who needed coaching.
You’ve heard the old saw: “What if I develop my people and they leave?” “But what if you don’t and they stay?”
It was de ja vu all over again during a follow-up phone conversation with an exec about an additional engagement with some of his bright-and-shineys. After he assured me that everything was going great, he said something that could have come from a Wall Street movie spoof (and I’m not making this up). He said he had neither the time nor the inclination to do leadership development.
At least he was truthful.
Now, I’m not claiming to be able to waltz in and waive my magic around and “fix” a team’s problems or instantly improve their leadership skills, but it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out what’s behind his department’s struggles.
For Pete’s sake, you don’t have to have an advanced degree or a special certification to develop leaders in your organization (I use my PhD to plant fence posts). You just have to be smart enough to realize that it isn’t what you do as a senior leader that makes you successful. It’s the efforts of the people who work for you. No success for them = no success for you.
And I’m okay if you don’t want to get your hands dirty making positive and lasting changes in your organization by developing your people. That’s not everyone’s forte, and there are plenty of senior leaders who are above that kind of touchy-feely stuff anyway. After all, I’m sure everyone at C-level models the behaviors they want to see in their employees. (That’s sarcasm if you missed it.)
But someone has to, because doing nothing isn’t a reasonable option. If your company doesn’t have a leadership skills development process that produces measurable leadership improvement, please, PLEASE hire someone from the outside who can help.
Oh, and senior leadership involvement in the process isn’t optional, either, unless no one’s serious about development in the first place.
So how about it, leaders? Are you intentionally engaged in developing your people, or are you going to hire someone who will be? Because doing nothing isn’t a C-Level option.
It’s up to you.
“Leadership is about influence and inspiration.”
– Everyone Who Knows Anything
Who has the most influence on the mood in your workplace?
If you’re part of the leadership – formal or informal – you do.
Especially if your mood reveals your anxieties about the organization or job security, or your lack of compassion for those struggling to meet your expectations.
In one of my favorite comic strips ever, Calvin sums it up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little bit.”
Around the mid-point of my Air Force career, a mentor remarked one day, “You’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” After he had my 8-year-old daughter explain what a Marsh-wiggle was, we talked about the effect it was having on my Airmen. I got his point, and I’d like to think I’m remembered differently by those who served with me in my later years.
Like leading by example, you don’t have a choice about impacting the office climate with the mood you’re emoting. You may not be aware that you’re doing it, but that’s a matter of your emotional intelligence, not reality on the ground.
No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be demonstrably charismatic – there’s plenty to evidence to debunk that; but from the C-suites to the referent leader far down in the organization, others are taking their positive and negative emotional cues from you. This is anything but new information, and yet we could all benefit from the occasional friendly reminder.
A huge part of a leader’s job is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. You make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t think you’re inspired yourself. Reflect for a minute on a couple of the best leaders you’ve known – were they positive and encouraging in a way that made you want to do more and better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner show worn places in the veneer covering their anxiety?
Okay, here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion you do – regardless of whether you’re bothered by something work-related or something that happened outside the office – do people ask you what’s wrong? If not, you should be worried. It means they’re either used to you being in a bad mood, or you’re not as approachable as you should be.
If that strikes too close to home, stop it. Get your fire back… people need to believe that you like being their leader.
I can’t guarantee your motivation and authentic positive outlook will fill your workplace with unicorns, butterflies, and rainbows. But it won’t hurt. On the other hand, I can assure you that your dour mood directly affects your employees’ morale and engagement.
Your folks deserve your best. Are you giving it to them?
It’s up to you, leaders.
A common narrative today tells us that everyone should strive to be the BEST at whatever they’re pursuing. Number One, the “go to” guy or gal, the Subject Matter Expert (SME for you acronym lovers).
After all, who wants to be known as Number Two?
My decades in the military taught me there was no better feeling than seeing the words “My #1 of __” on a performance review, being the distinguished graduate from some training course, or taking home the winner’s trophy from a competition – shooting, flying, it didn’t matter what kind.
Corporate America doesn’t hand out near as many medals and ribbons as the military, so you can’t always tell who the best on the office team is by looking at their clothes. But it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who the “go to” or the morning meeting SME is. Who got the biggest end-of-year bonus is harder to identify than the star ladder-climbers, but that information is often the worst kept secret in the office.
So, what’s wrong with a little competition in the workplace? Nothing, so long as we don’t create an environment where people either feel like winners or like losers. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be the “go to” problem solver, the SME, or even get promoted.
Heresy, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some people just want to come into work and do their best until it’s time to leave. They don’t care about being a star performer, but they’re good, dependable teammates and willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep their job. They typically like what they do, and they sometimes even like the person they work for. An occasional pat on the back makes them feel like a valued member of the team, and that’s good enough for them.
They are just as critical to a successful team as electrons are to an atom. They may not be part of the nucleus – they may not even want to be – but an atom’s not an atom without electrons. Let them be attracted to – and orbit around – the why of your organization and not force them into an unnatural role. Truth be told, some companies add so many morons to the neutrons and protons in the nucleus, it’s a wonder anyone wants to get promoted at all.
So how do you find out what part of your organizational atom they want to be? Ask them! Life’s demands change over time and so will their level of confidence about their competence. Those directly influence their desire as to how close they want to be to the organization’s center of gravity.
What if someone turns down a promotion? I still remember the first time I turned down a job offer. I was told, “You will never be asked again!” If you have an “up or out” culture, you may want to re-think your process. The best outcome I can think of after putting someone in a position they don’t want (or that they’re not prepared for) is that they leave the position as soon as possible.
Treating them like a left back on the B-team isn’t the answer either – that’s a sure morale vacuum in the making. Obviously, the better way is to talk to them! Find out what’s holding them back… outside commitments? Skills? Knowledge? Distrust? If you think they’re right for the job, help assuage their concerns and challenges.
No, I’m not asking you to make their world rainbows and butterflies. I’m asking you to be a leader to the people you want to keep on your team. “Life’s tough; get tougher” might work in Infantry training, but few of you reading this are preparing your troops for battle.
And speaking of being a leader, make sure you know what keeps them feeling like a valued member of the team. How? Again, ask them! You might be amazed at the loyalty you inspire when you offer to cut someone some slack during a rough patch at home.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s okay for a leader to want a team of people who come to work every day ready to do their best. But I think you’re doing your team a disservice if you expect them to be the best every day. Ask a recovering perfectionist if you doubt me, but I’ve found that trying to be the best didn’t lead me to be the best version of me like trying to do my best did.
Whadda you think? Willing to try a different approach?
It’s up to you, leaders.
During my last stint in the Pentagon, I worked for more than a few senior executives who were notorious for wanting too much in too little time. High achievers learned very quickly that the reward for hard work was more work. In fact, my favorite quote (which I used like a club) was one attributed to the late Russian-born New York Times film critic, Abe Weiler:
“Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do the work himself.”
One of our worst habits is to assume, and part of that involves assuming we know how much time and effort a task is going to take when we haven’t actually accomplished that task under the current circumstances. It’s good to get called out for that occasionally… we can usually use a dose of humility.
My sister called me out yesterday for giving her unsolicited advice about how to ride her bike up a nearby steep hill. My suggestion that she just use a lower gear was met with a quick, “So says the man who doesn’t ride a bike.”
And a couple of days ago, I was facilitating a series of Leader Reaction Course tasks for a group from the Wounded Warriors Project. One of the tasks involved horizontally traversing a rock-climbing wall. When one of the participants attacked the wall, he was especially challenged by the fact that he’d lost his left arm in combat. There was plenty of unsolicited advice from his teammates about his next best move. Needless to say, no one was too offended when he called down, “If you think this is so f-ing easy, you come up here and try it.” Some tried with their left hand behind their back; no one advanced a single step.
What does this have to do with you as a leader in your organization? Well, we have a tendency to pile additional work on our teams without giving it too much thought. I assume you know you can’t be successful in your role unless the people who work for you are successful in theirs. But, your team doesn’t become more successful when you assume know how much time and energy additional tasks are going to take. Quite the opposite, and here’s why:
Low morale, higher turnover. For the most part, people come to work wanting to do a good job. When they come to work overwhelmed by yesterday’s unrealistic expectations, and you casually walk by – or worse yet email – with additional work, it’s a morale killer… even if you throw a “git ‘er done” at the end. When that becomes a trend, the frustration leads to burnout which leads to looking for another job.
Poor performance, missed deadlines. When your team feels overwhelmed by the workload, they’ll often rush to finish and deliver low-quality goods on time and/or deliver late; doing both is even worse. When pushing them to do more, you have to decide if you want it done right or take the risk of an on-time, low-quality delivery. We can do some things well, or we can do everything poorly.
Here are a few ways I’ve learned to avoid (and sometimes push back) the ‘too much work, too little time’ conundrum:
Communication. There’s a handy little method of communicating called talking. It really works.
- First and foremost, bosses – especially senior ones – don’t get to think out loud without their team suffering the consequences. Those who want to please their boss will immediately shift their efforts to making the good idea fairy happy, even if that wasn’t the boss’ intent.
- When you assign projects, ask and listen to your team about how long they think it will take and what additional resources it might take. You hated drive-by taskings when you were in their shoes; don’t you think they feel the same? And if your top performer pushes back at the additional workload by saying, “I can do that, but I won’t be able to get this done on time,” you’d do well to consider the impact.
Create a culture that values honest dialogue about hard issues. Lip service won’t do here, and if your team is afraid to push back, you can go back to the low morale, higher turnover, poor performance, missed deadline section above . Being open to having discussions (two-way, please) about progress and challenges should keep unrealistic expectations in check.
Set clear priorities. Some of my bosses (especially the Army ones) were surprised when I’d walk in and announce my priorities for the day. I was giving them a chance to change my priorities before I got started, because later in the day when they came into my office and gave me additional work, I’d ask them where that fit in my priority list. Make sure your team knows what your priorities are, or suffer from the ‘some things well, everything poorly’ mentioned earlier.
Be flexible. Rigid adherence to self-imposed deadlines is an express ticket to failure. When things go wrong – which only happens when other people and organizations are involved – take a deep breath and adjust your expectations. It’s better to adjust the deadline or delivery date as early as you can, because it gives those who are depending on your team a chance to adjust.
Finally, don’t forget about your teams’ workload outside of work. Many of them are burning their candles at both ends, and stress added unnecessarily at work has a ripple effect on the other parts of their lives. You want them to stay? Make their families want them to stay.
We’re all human, and we like to feel productive, so it’s too bad we sabotage ourselves by taking on more than we can accomplish well. We do it as leaders, and your team does it to please you. The next time your boss gives you a new project, take a few minutes to consider how much time and effort you’re asking from your team when you pass it down the line.
Or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you, leaders.
As the leader of your team, who’s got your back? Are the people who work for and with you watching out for you, or do you find yourself covering your six to keep from being stabbed in the back?
A few years back, the “Got Your 6” campaign launched to unite nonprofit, Hollywood, and government partners to “create opportunities for our military veterans to successfully convert their leadership and operational training into positive civilian roles.” They had some great public service announcements that explained how “got your six” means we’ve got our veterans’ backs as they transition from military service to civilian life.
The PSAs also reminded me of lessons I learned in pilot training about how to keep the enemy from maneuvering to my ultimate position of vulnerability: my six o’clock position – the blind spot directly behind me where I wouldn’t recognize I was about to be killed. Translated into office politics: the blind spot where someone is about to make us look stupid or incompetent without us realizing it.
“Covering your six” is what pilots have wingmen for. In aerial combat, wingmen fly behind and above (or below) their lead to make sure no one sneaks up on them. Pretty easy to apply that as an analogy in the corporate world: who’s going to watch your back in the dog-eat-dog of self-sufficiency and watching out for yourself?
Your teammates, that’s who. The ones you’ve built trusting relationships with and know you have their backs as well.
When leaders are intentional about creating an environment of trust and collaboration in the office, coworkers watch out for each because they want the organization to succeed, and they don’t want to see someone they care about get hurt. It’s much more difficult to blindside an entire group of people watching out for each other than it is an individual outside the circle of trust.
I think it’s harder today to build trusting relationship in the workplace. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult than in the past. Because we all have so much information available about EVERYTHING, many have lost trust and confidence in historically reliable institutions like the news media, government, politics and popular culture. As we regularly question others’ ulterior motives (and others question ours), creating an environment of trust can be quite challenging.
Trust = integrity x compassion x competence
You build that environment of trust by having non-negotiable integrity and demonstrating you both care more about your employees than you do yourself (compassion), and you can and will use their efforts for the good of the organization (competence). You instill trust only if your actions are consistent with your words – assuming you have good intentions, of course.
“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it here. If you’re one who talks about others behind their backs, you can assume you are also being talked about. If there is even a hint that you might sacrifice a coworker for your benefit or to avoid blame, you’re headed for a Julius Caesar ending.
By now you’re thinking I must have grown up with rainbows and butterflies all around me. Far from it… I know competition can be fierce, and insecure or power-hungry people backstab from a variety of motivations. And I’ve certainly worked in places where the motto was something like “it’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” But in my experience, not having someone you trust to cover your six can be fatal to your career… figuratively AND literally.
Creating a culture of trust isn’t a passive activity; you can’t focus on helping your employees achieve great things if you’re always sitting in the corner with your back to the wall. If it’s not already a habit, you have to be intentional about getting out there and doing your best to make others successful, trusting them the way they trust you, and having their six.
So, who’s got your six?
It’s up to you, leaders.