In my many years of experience growing, coaching and training leaders, I’ve discovered that it’s seldom talent… or training… or give-a-shit… that interferes with a leader’s success…, at all but the senior-most (the senior-most) level.
It’s reinforcement. Or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. Managers are trained, facilitated and coached, then return to the barren wasteland of their workplace, left to fend for themselves amid the hyenas, badgers and cape buffalos.
Identifying appropriate leadership behaviors is certainly valuable. Ensuring learners can understand and assimilate those behaviors… equally important. Senior leadership reinforcing those desired behaviors… priceless.
“In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus.”
Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.
In consulting terms, he means “When you ring the bell, the dog slobbers.”
And before any Psychologist wannabes (or the real deal) start to educate me on classical vs. operant conditioning, cut me some slack. It’s newsletter article, and I’m trying not to induce an eye-rolling coma.
Now, let’s be clear. Reinforcement isn’t reminding. Reinforcement is used to specifically connect awareness to execution. Or to quote the slobberin’ dog Doc: It’s “a consequence applied that will strengthen… future behavior.”
Like all things necessary and valuable, there’s a process involved, or in this case, four “elements:”
1 – Set expectations. And make ‘em clear, using specific, plain language. Employees sometimes have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair. And by clear, I mean the employee should be able to read it back to you, and you agree “that completely covers it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked if someone understands the expectations, and being told “well, they sure should,” based on peripheral, related discussions. I’m not talking hints, clues or innuendo here—I’m saying use simple, concise English language.
Unless of course you don’t speak English.In which case… ah, never mind.
2 – Follow-up. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job, exhibiting the very behaviors you are reinforcing. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good management.
3 – Consequences. Good and bad. Negative consequences generally sound like discipline or punishment and can serve as a learning opportunity. The purpose is to associate a behavior with something unpleasant, so they will not repeat that action (and others may see they are not supposed to act that way either). Positive consequences are still in response to an action, but this time, it’s a pleasant response to positive behavior.
Often times, when we give a negative consequence, we are actually reinforcing a behavior because we are giving that outburst unqualified attention, so be careful here.
4 – Modeling desired behavior. If you want someone to behave a certain way, the gold standard is to make sure they see you behaving that way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Actually, it is, though we oft-times manage to screw it up. We’ll promote positive motivation, then threaten someone because “it’s a special situation.” We’ll say we want no profanity, then let it slip because “we were provoked.” We’ll talk about timely meeting attendance while justifying our “hectic schedule.” No excuses. Model it, or don’t expect it. So, we reinforce to get the actual behaviors desired. Consistency, awareness, feedback, and a helping manner (we want them to grow and improve) are all essential.
Coaching Slugs… the uncoachable. Also sometimes known as:
Light’s on, nobody’s home.
She just doesn’t get it.
How’d he slip through HR?
The 80/20 rule…
Or, my personal favorite…
A waste of time.
As egalitarian and “fair” as we sometimes hope to be, there’s no getting around it — some employees can be a waste of our development time, and we should stop doing that the instant we realize that condition. Make an effort, to be sure, but get better at knowing when it’s time to fish or cut bait.
Perhaps they were mis-hired to begin with; perhaps they were promoted well past their ability to grasp new concepts; perhaps they simply don’t want to do what’s required… I don’t know, and at this stage I wouldn’t spend a ton of your time digging into the “why.” The “what,” is “I’m spending my time for no return, when I could be spending it on someone else for recognizable value.”
Not really much of a choice, is it?
Quality guru Joseph Juran said (loosely paraphrased) that we tend to spend 80% of our time on those things that deliver 20% of our aggregate value. I would argue that, when discussing employee performance, motivation, and one-on-one development or coaching, that figure is much closer to 90/10. Maybe even higher.
Really, how much time do you spend with your highest performers… your top 5%? I’m not talking MBWA face-time, drinks after work, or breakfast forced-marches. Nor am I describing time spent at those infernal time-wasters called “staff meetings.” I’m talking about working with that A-player one-on-one, investing your personal time, counsel and expertise, and making sure that those “A’s” receive more emphasis than the “C’s.”
Let’s be clear: time spent growing top performers is never, ever wasted time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for lesser beings.
I know this sounds harsh, and decidedly un-empathetic. I assure you it’s not. It’s simple pragmatism wrapped in what’s best for both organization and employee. Let’s face it, if you’re spending an untoward amount of time with an under-performing employee, it’s unlikely that same employee is “living the dream” at work.
Yes, we should do an appropriate amount of development for those employees who don’t quite “get it,” but seem to have both the wherewithal and the give-a-$h!t to grow significantly with some well-thought attention. But be wary, critical, and skeptical; prepare to cut the cord the instant you realize you are repeating yourself, notice issues of ethics or integrity, or that the employee’s “light” just hasn’t “turned on.”
Remember, development — coaching, training, appropriate responsibilities — are a vital part of growing our future leaders. But they must bring a few things to the table that you simply cannot coach in. You can’t train them to have a work ethic, for example. They must bring that with them when hired. You cannot train them to be honest or ethical — someone well before you influenced that past repair.
And most important: some people, no matter how much we want to believe the best, just don’t have the intellect to handle the work at hand. I don’t mean high IQ scores; they just need to have enough gray matter to learn and perform the job at hand.
To quote that master of pithy responses, comedian Ron White, “no matter how hard you try… you can’t fix stupid.”
Ok, so maybe the Beatles reference was a bit much…
We were two companies, someone decided merger was a good thing… then just one big, happy family… right??
Bain Capital. McKinsey. Deloitte… don’t take just my word for it; the single biggest reason for merger or acquisition failure is NOT costs, lack of synergy, shortage of capital, incompatible strategy, etc.
It’s people. Failure to integrate cultures, directions, leadership and communities within an organization result in more failures than any market disapproval could muster.
Pay attention here; you’re paying big bucks for – usually – more than a simple asset. Realistically, even simple “asset purchases” are hoping for more than a simple Return on Asset; we’re always hoping for bigger, better returns that can only happen through the newly combined workforce talent. Again, “people.”
Let’s get right to it. I’m assuming you’ve competently determined that the merger or acquisition is a logical addition to your business. The technical part is fairly simple… a bunch of spreadsheets, a month or two of due diligence to verify the lofty promises, assurances, and statements from management. Now, let’s work on the more fickle side…
The most important thing to remember is communication.
Frequent, informative, helpful communications. The initial merger time is the most critical, since many of the employees in the acquired company will “overthink” the event, and may believe they will be summarily replaced. Or, more important to key performers, that they’ll lose their “key performer” status.
Frankly, you may actually WANT to lose some of them, but don’t you want the opportunity, at least, to have some input to who stays and who goes?
If you intend to make cuts, announce them and do them quickly. The longer it takes, the worse the retention results. Be sure, if staff cuts will occur, that they occur on both “sides” of the merger equation, if you really want a successful post-merger story.
Read this closely: the longer you take to make the “who stays and goes” determination, the more high performers you lose. It really is that simple. Mediocre and poor performers simply fret endlessly, duck for cover, and hope to go unnoticed.
High performers don’t look at life – or their careers – that way.
And they have no intention of waiting around to see if you’ll give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. These people are infinitely employable, have probably got feelers out already, and in the absence of anyone helping them do differently, will look out for their own well-being.
Even to your detriment.
Next, assess the acquired company’s culture and strengths, and make the determination on what “works” for you, and what doesn’t. Once you determine what the “combined” culture will look like, no compromise — on either “side.”
Read that again. No Compromise. On the bus or off the bus. No one rides along for sightseeing. No one – particular if influential and/or in leadership – gets to publicly buck the “new deal. Like the three musketeers, it’s “All for One!”
Remember — and this is ultra-important — there can only be ONE culture. Anything else will lead to fragmented actions, loyalties, and lack of direction.
Finally, be frank and open with the process. The worst thing that could happen is that the acquired employees lose trust in your integration process – they already ‘suspect’ you may not have their best interests at heart.
If my concepts above aren’t specific enough, here’s some detail on crafting a successful integration:
Create an employee integration plan immediately. It takes hours, not days, don’t dilly-dally. Communicate that plan to others (both ‘”sides”).
Execute to that plan immediately, quickly, and strongly. Patton was correct: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”Time is not on your side here. The longer it takes, the worse the outcome… guaranteed.
Decide where you’ll compromise — and where not — and hold firm.
Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Rinse and repeat. Even “nothing new to report” is better than silence.People fill ‘unknowns’ with their own “knowns,” and they are generally not the information you’d prefer them using to make decisions.
Clearly define roles, accountabilities, reporting relationships, and performance expectations. It’s the very core of the employee agreement.
“It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Don’t declare integration ‘victory’ too soon.Prematurely hailing success has killed many an integration, as a couple of key people/groups look around and say “not from where I sit, bubba.”
Good luck. Fun but challenging stuff.
Come to think of it, most of this applies to any substantial organizational change effort as well. I’ll be damned; surely must be just a coincidence…
So, just got that big promotion, eh? Now, you’re “It.” Big Shot. Grand Poobah. Boss Hog. El Jefe. Shiznit. The Big Cheese. Uppity-Muckety-Muck. She who must be obeyed. Kahuna.
Sounds great, right? Finally, you’re a CXO, with all the rights, privileges, honors and benefits occurring thereto.
So I say, Congrats! Finally, you have all that extra money, private elevator, fancy business card and a big, honkin’ corner office… you big LOSER!
Wait, what?? If I have just been promoted, why are you calling me a Loser?? What the hell have I lost?
Funny you should ask. I hate to be a buzz-kill, but you may want to put down that promotion drink for a second. You see, when ascending into senior-most leadership, you do lose some things.
You lose the ability to solely determine your success. Your success now depends almost entirely on others’ efforts and successes. Hint: this should be a clear indicator that their success is now your #1 priority.
You have lost the ability to suggest. Unfortunately, at your new lofty stratum, suggestions sound more like orders than random ideas. Surprisingly, nearly all your suggestions will be implemented, post-haste. Complete with “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
You lose the ability to consistently rely on a decision-making safety net. This one is tougher to realize before you’re there. Until in the seat, most of us don’t really understand the comfort we get from having others above us in the food chain to prevent our sheer stupidity from making the 6 o’clock news.
You have lost the ability to hold a grudge. Sure, remember how people perform and behave, but you must now be willing to forgive and forget. Or at a minimum, forgive and empower (again).
You lose the ability to vent outwardly to a crowd. No more temper tantrums when something breaks. Not that you should have been having them before, but…
You lose the ability to have a bad day. At least the ability to display that you’re having a bad day. Your followers need — and have the right to – you at your best.
You have lost the ability to not recognize that whenever your door opens, you’re on stage. The world (as you know it) is always watching; act accordingly.
You lose the ability to be “off-stage” with anyone with the same paycheck. I’m not saying you can’t hang out (though I do advise restraint), but while hanging out remember you’re still on stage. Some things done cannot be undone, nor can things seen be unseen.
Language—you lose the ability to use any of the following phrases:
S/He’ll get over it.
Titles don’t matter.
Just handle it.
Make it go away.
Because I said so.
I can’t deal with that right now.
That’s not the way we did it at XXX Company.
Finally, you have utterly lost the ability to take credit for anything that happens on your watch, unless you were the sole human responsible for every single step of the way. In which case, you’re being paid too much. Don’t feel too bad about this one; you’re still 100% accountable for all of your purview, including the screw-ups, oopsies, and “my bads.”
And yes, yes… before anyone picks one or two of these and comes up with the clever “…but Bill Gates doesn’t have a degree” exception, I do realize that some of these may not be as absolute a prohibition as I’ve described. Let’s agree, however, that overall some of our up-to-now behaviors must go the way of the dodo bird (or cash, customer service or fifty-cent coffee) when we achieve senior-most leadership levels.
This top-10 list isn’t meant to be discouraging or restrictive; it’s simply a fact that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Some of those responsibilities can be displayed as much by what you don’t do, as by what you do.
And take heart… the list of things you get to do is incredible. You get to influence careers and lives; you get to have a personal impact on people and organizations; you get to make meaningful decisions so that others may succeed… there are lots more, but we’ll save them for a sequel article.
Bob’s a client, the chief executive of a fairly large company in the Northeast. His name is not really Bob, but he really is a client, and a recent experience prompted me to share this (with Bob’s permission).
At the beginning of my coaching engagement with Bob, I conducted a 360-degree survey so we could get an idea of how others see him in his day to day activities and interactions. If you haven’t had a 360 survey—a real one—done for you, you should. It’s almost always eye-opening. And sometimes a bit scary.
But no one dies in the process, so you’ve got that going for you…
Anyway, while doing the 360 survey on Bob, I was privileged to meet and speak with many of the direct reports on his leadership team. Without getting into details that would make Bob (if he’s reading this) squeamish, the results were insightful and indicated he’s clearly respected. Mostly good things, and nothing really out of the ordinary.
Until I spoke with Jim (again, not his real name). Jim offered that Bob was direct, decisive, and had a low tolerance for incompetence. No real shocker, given Bob’s role. Then, he gave the “pièce de résistance” (that’s a copy-paste, I had no idea how to write that).
“Bob fires assholes,” he said.
So, that had me putting my pen down. “Do tell,” I replied.
It seems that even more than incompetence, Bob has a crushingly low tolerance for anyone, particularly in any sort of leadership role, “being an asshole.” The culture of this organization doesn’t support that kind of behavior, and given their size, the ripple effect of a single jerkazoid in the mix causes all sorts of problems. Problems that can easily, and more effectively, be avoided by just firing “the asshole.”
Admit it – you’ve read this with a slight grin and a knowing nod of the head. You know the assholes in your world, the people causing problems, discomfort and stress for others, and you know the ones that should be whacked.
So whack ‘em.
Performance challenges we can deal with. We coach, mentor, advise, bring resources to bear to help someone well-intentioned up their performance game. That’s as it should be, so don’t stop that.
But behavior issues, particularly in leadership, should be dealt with sharply, definitively and immediately. The impact is just too big on the organization. You know that already, so suck it up and do what needs to be done.