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.
Bob fires assholes. Be like Bob.
Nobody really likes them. Yes, some are better than others in dealing with them, but they are likely not high on our most-favorite interactions list. Tough conversations make us uncomfortable. Maybe we even don’t know what to say or how to say it. We don’t always know how to handle them without either damaging a currently-positive relationship or escalating a crappy one.
Either one, our druthers are to not have to deal with them. Unfortunately, that’s seldom an option. Unlike fine wine, good scotches and well-kept cigars (I’m simply listing my relevant vices), the conflict behind the need for those conversations does not get better with age.
Unfortunately, until AI makes us all obsolete, people are in the mix; if people are in the mix, there will be conflict. If conflict is in the mix, we’ll be having difficult conversations.
So then, what to do? Books are written and workshops are held to address how best to have these discussions. Various glossy hardbacks are rife with advice on how to conduct these particularly onerous chats. What if, instead of getting better at them, we figured out how to not have them in the first place? Try this instead:
Avoid difficult conversations by having difficult conversations.
Say whaaat? Kevin, your aforementioned vices are causing you to say crazy things… if I don’t like having those conversations to begin with, why the hell would I intentionally create them??
Simply put: brief, preemptive discussions can prevent having to deal with those bigger, difficult conversations.
A story… I was doing a C-level 360 survey recently, and in following up on an earlier comment I asked the person I was interviewing “So, how well does this executive deal with really tough conversations—you know, serious conflict?” The person paused for several seconds, which is usually a precursor to something bad or negative. Instead, he surprised me…
“Actually, he does a really good job of avoiding having to have those difficult conversations.”
Well, I must say that caught me a bit off-guard. “So, he simply avoids having them altogether,” I asked?
“No, he avoids having to have them,” he replied.
Well, I’m just a public-school graduate from south Texas… I told him to please explain. He went on to explain to me, in thoughtful detail, how this executive has the near-term, immediate conversations with others that prevents things from escalating to unhealthy conflict or those dreaded difficult conversations.
“When performance or behavior is off, or some expectation is unmet, this executive deals with it then, while it’s simply feedback. Instead of waiting until things build up and emotions come into play, he just has those simple, brief conversations—positive and negative—on a regular basis.”
In doing so, he seldom must deal with what most people would call a difficult conversation.
He doesn’t avoid having them, per se… he avoids having to have them.
Hmmm, avoiding a problem instead of dealing with it after it’s created? That’s some cutting-edge thinking right there.
And it’s damned good advice for us all.
Kevin Ross is my best friend and my partner-in-crime at Triangle Performance (how cool is that?) We frequently have discussions on various leadership topics; sometimes over the phone, sometimes via text, sometimes in-person over a cigar (and perhaps a wee dram or two). Makes for an interesting dialog, to say the least.
Recently, we discussed Integrity. We have forever simplified “integrity” to mean “do what you say you’ll do.” And frankly, for a generalized foundational definition, that works well. For more sophisticated, nuanced conversations… well, it sucks.
In looking at leadership from an application standpoint – something we absolutely strive for here – integrity shows up as a factor in so many things. As much as I love simplicity, some things are necessarily complicated. Dammit. I’m none too happy about that, but reality is what it is. You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
So, we’re digging deeper into the reality of integrity. And we realized that integrity can’t be simply telling the truth. “Whaaat??” you say? Let me explain… (finally get to use my Princess Bride reference…)
You see, there’s more to integrity than simple honesty.
So, time for a new definition. Integrity, it seems to me, is simply demonstrable moral courage. I’m still keeping it simple, but for leaders, it involves more than simple honesty. It includes honesty to self—the courage of your convictions. I’ve used courage now twice in describing integrity, so you word-counters must know it’s important. It is. Our folks want to see us leading… from the front… even when it hurts.
The hurting that you feel? It’s just demonstrable courage bursting through. And no worries, it only hurts the first time or two; after that, you get used to it. Like scotch, it’s an acquired taste.
Soon, we’ll do an entire newsletter devoted to courage (it’ll hurt a bit, trust me). Until then, if you’re trying to figure out how you can demonstrate moral courage today (remember, we’re all about applying things, not just theory):
Be transparent. This means, of course, being honest. It also means providing insight into the sausage-making we call decisions, and helping people understand why we do what we do. The “why” is the singular most important piece of delegation, empowerment and change. It’s only right that it be a cornerstone in our newfound courageous behavior.
Be accountable. When you screw up (note the “when,” not “if”), apologize, sincerely and without qualification. Show remorse and commit to do better. Then shut up and move on. Take complete ownership of all you do, good and bad. Take your share of ownership of more corporate decisions, even (especially?!) if you disagree with them.
Be responsible for results. Take inputs, listen to them closely, and change course if that’s the right thing to do. Don’t stay hooked to a course that was wrong from the beginning. However, If your first decision – even with your new knowledge – is still correct, own that as well. Tell them you’ve considered their inputs, but for whatever reason (insert here), you’ve decided to continue that course. Your job is to listen to inputs, consider available options, and discern among options. Own it, do it, make sure others see it.
Integrity is an important leadership competence (I know… “D’oh!”), but learning how to demonstrate that competence is what matters. People have to actually see us doing what they need and expect—it’s not enough for you to just know it.
Here endeth the lesson (another great movie line)…
2018 is in the can, finished. Stick a fork in it, it’s done.
A new day has dawned. 2019 is here, we’re over a week into it already. Soon, we’ll be discussing how fast January flew by, then Q1.
Have you made plans? Personal goals are great. Business objectives are super. But do you have specific plans to “do” leadership better in 2019? No? Why not?
Many of us create detailed plans for the new year. We spreadsheet various categories like personal, family, business, spiritual, health, etc. But we need to add one: Leadership. What can you do differently this year to improve your leadership impact? “Get better at it” sounds great but is woefully unactionable. (more…)
Apologies for the length. We recently received an email from a junior executive we had worked with for several years. He left the client company about a year ago, and decided it was time to let us know what he thought of us. For those who know us well, you know this could have gone several ways… 🙂
Ed. The tuna reference will just have to remain a mystery… feel free to ask one of us if it’s bothering you to untoward proportions.