Five Thing My Mentors Modeled For Me

A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

Does anyone else remember when being called a mentor was something special? Back before we started using it in performance evaluations? Before we had to ask, and maybe pay someone to mentor us? Before it was a buzzword?

I certainly do, and I’m thankful for the group of professionals who served as mentors to me during my occasionally tumultuous military career. They were leaders all, and as I’ve mentioned before, leaders develop leaders… that’s their job.

Take, for instance, the, “Kevin, I’m not trying to change who you are, but you don’t have to be you so hard all the time.” (Thanks, Mike.) I might have used that one a time or two as I tried to pay it forward by passing the lessons I learned to those I’ve led and mentored.

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The Sun is Late…

… or, what to do when a plan doesn’t come together.

I can honestly say I’ve learned more from my mistakes than my successes. I doubt I’m alone in that. What’s that old saying? “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Obviously, none of my mistakes were fatal and none ended my career… yet.

Some of my biggest mistakes I considered colossal failures at the time, only to learn later that there are actually some things I can’t control. Like the time I lost $1.1B in multi-year resourcing. Or the time I started an international incident in the skies over Younameastan. Or the time I invested in a gold mine (seriously!).

I was fortunate to work for a number of leaders that knew mistakes are rarely intentional, and almost all can be important learning opportunities. I always tried to pass that on to the men and women who worked for me afterwards. Yes, mistakes can be frustrating and costly, but in a corporate setting, they’re rarely life threatening.

One of my favorite mistakes happened during my last fun assignment in the Air Force when I was leading a rapidly deployable group trained to respond to a wide variety of contingency operations. We were deployed to a bare base for a self-imposed training exercise to test our readiness to operate in chemical protective gear – an old-time Cold War, NATO-type exercise. By bare base, I mean a runway and a patch of dirt with zero support infrastructure.

It was only for a few days, but both the days and nights were long and filled with hard physical and mental exertion. The night before the exercise ended, I reviewed the re-deployment plan put together by our logistics planner. My one rule was that we were not going to bring the tents down in the dark. Something always gets broken when we do that.

It was a good plan, but it was clear that he had forgotten about the one-hour time differential between GMT and local, so his assumption about when it would be light was wrong. I asked probing questions about the plan but couldn’t get him to see his error. After all, he’d checked with the weatherman specifically to see when nautical dawn was.

The next morning was busy, and we completed all the assigned tasks by the scheduled tent breakdown time. But it was still pitch-black. I asked that the planner come see me, and when he reported in, I asked his where the sun was.

He stood tall and replied, “Sir, it’s scheduled to arrive any minute.”

I let him know that it wouldn’t be arriving for another hour and that under no circumstances would we break tents down in the dark. And then I let him continue to be in charge of the pack up. Fortunately, that young captain was resourceful and flexible. He assigned some other activities that were scheduled for later and managed to scrounge a light cart from somewhere else on the airfield. Within a half hour, we were breaking down tents and had completed palletizing the entire camp by the time the aircraft arrived for our re-deployment to home base.

He turned a failure into a complete success and learned a couple of lasting lessons:

  • Learn to critically examine your plans and listen for understanding when someone asks questions. Maybe the question behind the question is what really needs to be considered.
  • Always have a Plan B (and maybe C). Think about it, how often does everything go exactly as planned? Ever?
  • Give subordinates every opportunity to try tasks that stretch them without fear that failure will result in humiliation or professional suicide. During the debrief, I publicly praised his original plan (with the notable exception of the failure of the sun to appear on time) and his resourcefulness that resulted in mission success.

Kevin Berchelmann’s Law of Leadership #4: Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job. In other words, let your people take risks without fearing the occasional failure. They need to know you have their back, and you’re not going to fire them if something goes awry.

That was ten years ago. That young captain has been promoted a few times since and is a commander himself now. We still keep in touch (I’ll save the value of mentoring for another piece), and his last note to me read, “Regardless of when/how you learned your leadership style it was appreciated and is part of your legacy. You inspired me to be a better Airman, Officer, and father.”

Doesn’t get much better than that.

What have you taught your employees about making mistakes? The last thing you want is for the mistakes to be hidden behind the fear of your reaction. Just because you’ve stopped hearing about mistakes doesn’t mean they’ve stopped happening.

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Free Leadership Development

Please, don’t tell my wife I’m doing this…

Yes, leadership development can cost money. Most of us believe the returns are well worth it, and I’ve had the professional pleasure of working with many of you in improving the skills and behaviors in your leadership staffs.

Oh-Yes-its-FREE---iStockBut you know what? Most of the more significant things that leaders can do are free.

That’s right. Gratis, free of charge. No sales tax, shipping and handling, or any other spurious expense. What, then, can we do to take advantage of this FREE leadership development? Nothing more than some simple effort on your part.

Without going into ad nauseum detail, suffice to say that there are three very simple things that a leader can do to set him/herself apart (positively) from the pack:

  1. Ask for input. Even when you already think you know the answer. Here’s the funny thing, and those I’ve worked with have heard me say this countless time: ask frequently for others’ input.If you ask all the time, people don’t get offended when you don’t “take” their suggestions each and every time proffered. If you only ask once per year, that person will fully expect you to use their input in a meaningful way… after all, why would you finally ask if you weren’t going to take it.Besides, keep on asking, even if you don’t believe you’ll get a meaningful response. Even a blind squirrel gets a nut every now and then, and who knows? Maybe that employee will just get lucky…
  1. ThanksSay please and thank you. Face it — no employee with the brains of a rock believes when their boss “asks” them to do something, it’s really a choice… what does it hurt, then, to always — ALWAYS — say “please,’ and “thank you?”At the end of the day, you’ve got the business card. You can always be a jerk and say “do it my way.” Just don’t lead with that.
  1. Admit mistakes. Freely. And don’t water them down with that passive-aggressive crap, like “I probably shouldn’t have done that, but…” or “In hindsight…” Call it like it is — I SCREWED UP! I made a mistake, and I hope to do better. Then LEAVE IT ALONE!Credibility can skyrocket when leaders accept full (not conditional) responsibility for their actions. Warren Buffet, the Gandhi of all investing, recently apologized to the world for buying a poor-performing stock. He didn’t blame the subsequent losses on the market, the mortgage industry, or the government. He said, “…I have been dead wrong. The terrible timing of my purchase cost Berkshire several billion dollars.”Several billion dollars?? If Buffet can fess up to a mistake costing more money than the GDP of 90% of all the world’s countries, surely we can own up to some near-trivial misstep during our regular workday?

These three things — all by themselves — can help leaders stand out from the mediocre masses. You’d think it was pulling teeth, though, since none are as common as they should be.

Make them common with you.


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It Is What It Is… But What Is It?

It is what it isI looked up from my desk the other day and noticed (again) a retirement present from a good friend and co-worker that says, “It is what it is.” Too often, I hear that phrase uttered in a tone of voice that conveys resignation to an unpleasant situation or acceptance of defeat. It doesn’t have to be that way!

As leaders, a key to success is in understanding the last part of the sentence: “…what it is.”  It might be something we have control over, something we can only influence, or something that affects us and our people but is out of our hands.  How quickly we ascertain which of the three It is, and how we communicate that to those who work for and with us often determines whether we (the royal WE) are going to rise above the challenge.

In a past life, I commanded an organization responsible for deploying personnel to all parts of Europe and Africa. We were too short staffed in certain specialties to do what were we being asked to do, and getting additional manpower was out of our control. What was in our control was how we used the personnel we had.

86 CRGInstead of being resigned to playing the victim to the asymmetric workload distribution between specialties, we developed an aggressive cross-training program that enabled the willing, but underemployed, personnel to team with those who were in danger of burning out. As a result, we built a greater number of very capable, cross-functional teams that were scalable and incredibly efficient to deploy and employ… and we significantly improved morale in the process.

This speaks to three core truths of leadership: leaders create “we” organizations; leaders don’t play the victim; and, leaders help others manage change.

As the chief executive, my job was to instill a sense of shared purpose, creating a “we” organization that excelled at overcoming adversity and delivering client success. Those given additional training knew they’d be asked to work harder but were willing to give their discretionary effort to reduce the burden on their teammates. If you know your organization has spare band-width in some areas, maybe you can tap into it through a renewed sense of shared purpose.

When leaders fail, they can’t play the victim. I tried so many times to get additional personnel, they called me Kevin de la Mancha. As frustrating as it was, we didn’t sit around and blame others for not being able to accomplish the mission; we got off our morass and found an alternative that gave us control back. If you’re not encouraging your people to find innovative ways to overcome It, they may not think you have what it takes to lead them to greater successes, and they’ll be wary of following.

Leaders have to model change resiliency; if you don’t have it at the top, you won’t find it at the bottom. By understanding and anticipating resistance to changing the status quo, hierarchical way of tasking, it was easier for me to communicate the positive effects we could generate (both up and down the chain of command) and involve those most affected in the implementation plan. When those affected demonstrated their buy-in, it silenced the nay-sayers and motivated others to want to do more work for the good of the team.

How are you dealing with It?  Are you resigned to suffer its impact on your organization, or are you aggressively developing alternative strategies to deliver success by giving your people the tools and opportunities they need to exceed expectations?

Overcoming It depends on you.

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Perception trumps reality. Every time.

Okay we’ve all heard the little idioms, like “perception is reality to those who perceive,” or even just “perception is reality.” My personal favorite is “my perception is my reality.”

What the hell does all that mean? Well for you, leaders, it means that how people perceive your leadership is infinitely more important than what you intend for your leadership to be. It means that what you say means little, compared to the actions that you take (or words that you write).

construction workersThis isn’t rocket science, right? Goodness knows we’ve heard all this before, that our actions are more important that our words. But do we really get it? In my experiences, the answer is no. And here are some examples:

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Politics, People and Leadership

— Don’t get them confused

Politics. Damn.

It just seems to permeate everything we do today. And not, necessarily, in a good way. “We the people” have seemingly become unable to have common conversations about so many issues.

donkeyLeaders… Don’t fall for it. This communication impasse, this idiotic inability to have constructive dialogue, this desire to be “right” about all things partisan that will forever be based in opinion (no matter how strongly you believe), cannot become part of who you are. Not in your professional leadership role. (more…)

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