When Crisis Turns to Chaos

it separates leaders from managers

This is definitely not one of those academic treatises about the difference between leadership and management. I outright despise those.

Nor is it a “thought piece” similar to those written in the last year about leading and managing in and through a crisis. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of them crowding our inboxes.

Think back – just about a year ago, we were all facing a crisis of global proportions of which we had no control. We had to react and respond at the same time, and we were all taxed just to keep toilet paper in our bathrooms, not to mention our businesses running while keeping our workforce and our customers safe. For many businesses (if not most) managing our response to the crisis was more of a life-or-death issue for the company than it was for our people.

Here in Texas we pride ourselves on getting through one crises – economic, natural, and political disasters are all second nature to us now. Believe me when I say we can lead and manage the hell out of a crisis.

And then hell Texas froze over.

Now 2020 definitely sucked, and 2021 was off to a shaky start, but just when we thought we were hitting our stride with COVID – balancing work between home and office, keeping stores and restaurants open without endangering anyone’s health, and keeping industry producing and the economy running –  Texas came to a screeching halt.

It happens all over the world because Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and some equally disruptive catastrophic events are mankind’s own doing. The question for us then is: How do we lead when the shit hits the fan? Crisis sucks; chaos eats crisis for lunch (with a nod to Peter Drucker).

So, what do we do when crisis turns to chaos?

The first thing we want to do well is manage the hell out of it. Calm heads with excellent managerial skills find ways to keep producing, delivering, selling, operating, etc., the best we can. Lessons learned when we tame chaos and crisis back to normal day-to-day operations can quickly become marketplace advantages. If we don’t do it well, we’re probably just like everyone else.

How’s that different that what we did most of 2020? Not much, except that for much of 2020 we weren’t that concerned about our workforce freezing to death or being physically unable to leave their homes. Not to mention how little concern we had for their home repair projects.

I’m not down on managers. Often underappreciated and over maligned, managers get a lot of flak for not being good leaders. But it’s our own fault when our great doers aren’t great managers and great managers aren’t great leaders if we haven’t given them the tools to be effective. Here’s an example:

A local hospital department manager I know (a good doer) responded to the chaos around him by contacting each of his employees in the hospital and the surrounding clinics under his control when they could report to work (and left their supervisors out of the loop). But he didn’t ask a single one how they were doing. When one of the employees reported she had fallen on the ice and broken her arm, he only asked for how long she might miss work.

Remember the childhood game Follow the Manager? Remember the old war movies where the hero crawled out of the trenches and managed the charge into the heart of the enemy’s gunfire? How about when Ken Blanchard said, “The key to successful management today is influence, not authority.”

No, because none of those are real.

In crisis-turned-chaos, a leader’s concern has to be first and foremost about people. Does it suck to have to lead and manage simultaneously? Sometimes. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s what they pay us the big bucks for. And we can’t manage or lead without dealing with people, so when we’re trying to do both at the same time in the midst of chaos, here are four key skills to rely on:

  • Make sure your people are safe. The military has a few institutionalized methods of reaching every single servicemember under an individual’s charge. It starts at the top and branches out so that at each level of supervision, everyone is accounted for and provided critical information. If our organizations don’t have a way to pass accountable information from the top to the bottom other than sending ignorable emails, we’re doing it wrong. In chaos like this, a leader’s number one concern should be: are all my people safe. The next should be:
  • Ask if they need help that you can provide. We may not be in a position to provide anything but moral support. On the other hand, we might have a list of resources they can reach out to. Totally dependent on us and/or our organization, but the least we can do is listen to their needs. Leaders listen and then:
  • Admit vulnerability. I couldn’t get out of my neighborhood for a week, so I couldn’t rescue my daughter who was without power and water, and she couldn’t get to us. Hell yeah, I felt It’s okay to admit stuff’s happening that we can’t control and don’t know when it’s going to end, but leaders do it in a way that doesn’t portray helplessness or hopelessness. Leaders acknowledge the difficulty while portraying the confidence that we’re going to make it through it stronger. I know it sounds cheesy, but people are looking for a confident anchor in their leader, not an uninflated life preserver. Finally:
  • Execute 360-degree leadership. Once we’ve accounted for all our people and done what we could to assure them they’re not alone, reach out to peers to see how they’re doing and then call our boss. Like a preemptive strike to keep from being inundated by incoming calls yourself. Is it elf-serving to call your boss to check in? Maybe if that’s the motive, but in this case, it’s just good leadership.

Managers are about the organization; leaders are about the organization’s people. We don’t often sit around ruminating about responding to chaos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt once in a while. Because our response will reveal whether We Care About People on the wall is a core value or only a trite slogan.

It’s up to you, leaders.

One thing for sure, there are a lot of Texans who look back fondly on the days when we only had a global pandemic to deal with.

Nothing Helps a Bad Mood

like spreading it around

2020 is over. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Don’t you wish we could flip a switch on the anxieties we felt last year as easily as we turn the page on the calendar? As I looked forward at 2021, I looked back over the last five years in our lives and saw this truth: every year has ups and downs that affect our mood at work; they just change over time. Not rocket surgery I know, but I needed the reminder.

Like leading by example, we don’t have a choice on whether our mood affects those around us and those who work for us. It does. Now I can’t guarantee a positive outlook and motivation will fill our workplaces with butterflies and rainbows, but there can be no doubt that a leader’s dour mood directly affects their employees’ morale and engagement.

I’m a strict Calvinist. In my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin sums this up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”

I used to think I was a pretty positive boss to work for. Then one day a mentor called me out when he said, “Kevin, you’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” A huge part of a leader’s role is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. We make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t believe we are.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty of evidence to debunk that. But from the C-suites to the referent leaders far down in the organization, others are taking their emotional cues from us. Not a believer? Reflect for a second on a couple of the very best leaders you known: were they positive and encouraging in a way that make you want to do and be better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner… like a thin veneer covering their anxiety.

Here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion we do – regardless of whether we’re bothered by a work-related issue or something that happened outside the office – do people ask is something wrong? If not, it either means they’re used to us being in a bad mood or we’re not as approachable as we should be.

So how do we do it? How do we model a positive attitude when it feels like the world is throwing us more curveballs than we can hit? Do we just grin and bear it? Fake it ‘til we make it?

I have a better strategy for 2021. Here are a few tried and true behaviors that can improve our outlook and make us more positive leaders in (and out of) the workplace:

  • First and foremost: no complaining! Psychologists generally agree that our brains are hardwired to spend more mental energy and time on negative events than we do on good news. Complaining can easily become a habit, so we have to intentionally resist that negativity bias and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Thanks, mom.)
  • Keep the vocabulary positive. Speaking of saying things, we can be honest about substandard efforts without sounding accusatory or hostile. “I think there’s a problem with this” and “I don’t think this is your best work” have a completely different impact than “You screwed this up” and “This is a piece of crap.”
  • Avoid emotional vacuum cleaners. I don’t mean the kind of emotional vacuum where it feels like nothing can fill an inner void; I mean the kind of person who can suck the joy out of a Superbowl victory parade. A common trait of good leaders is being empathetic, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time with Negative Nancy or Derek Downer than necessary. Maintain a positive boundary and move on.
  • Don’t lose sight of the long game. As in don’t sweat the small stuff. (Thanks again, mom.) Many of our problems at work are short-term and in the big scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. After we deal with a problem, will it still seem like a big deal next week? Next month? Next year? The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
  • Finally, put your own mask on first. Like donning emergency oxygen masks on an airplane, our heads have to be in the game enough to recognize when others are struggling. If they’re showing up at work anxious and frustrated and their performance or behavior is suffering, we’re liable to take the easy way out and address only what we see. That’s especially true if not taking good enough care ourselves.

Our folks deserve our best efforts in giving them a positive workplace where they can be successful. Are we giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

On Your Marks, Go!… Get Set

2021 is off and running

Kinda like Kevin Berchelmann described a business decision-making style in June’s At C-Level as “Ready, Fire, Aim!,” “On your marks, go, get set… ” is a planning style often used when preparing for the new year just after the nick of time. In past years, that style put us behind the eight ball initially, but we could recover with hard work and good leadership.

Guess what? 2021 won’t be like past years because the 2020 eight ball never stopped rolling. How we start the year depends mostly on our attitude: Is January 1, 2021 the 307th day of March 2020 (feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), or are there only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2021?

Good leaders know that no new year will be like last year – or the year before that or the years before that – and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. An easy measure of that in 2020 is how our long organizations took to go from meetings around the conference room table to virtually in front of a computer screen.

If ever a year was going to start with VUCA, 2021 is it.

Here are some changes we know we’ll have to deal with, so let’s be ready for the unknown:

  • The 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2021. A new Congress means new rules that will affect our business in new ways. Are we agile enough to pivot?
  • Our competitors will develop new ways of doing business that will give them a marketplace advantage. Do we have processes in place to develop new ways of our own?
  • We’re going to have personnel turnover – some painful and some cause for celebration. Have we prepared by developing successors?

On the other hand, some things that stay the same may still take us by surprise:

  • Political strife isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
  • We still have a global pandemic to deal with.
  • There will be economic uncertainty that will make the stock markets go up and down and affect our businesses.
  • My wife will always get her way when we have a difference of opinion (I’m a leadership consultant; we don’t have conflicts).

Bill George at Harvard Business School writes that a leader’s answer to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity in business can be found in his VUCA 2.0Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability – all traits of an effective leader.

So, where do we start in 2021? With something else that will be the same: the leadership basics that haven’t changed in a few millennia.

  • First, remember that our success (and the organization’s) depends on the people who work for us being successful. We can never forget who’s work keeps the day-to-day business operating. The majority of our effort should be focused on creating an environment where they can shine.
  • Set clear expectations. The Ambiguity in VUCA often starts with us not defining success for our team. We shouldn’t expect the results we were looking for if they don’t know what success looks like.
  • We can’t effectively lead someone who doesn’t trust us. If we aren’t positive and caring, or don’t have integrity or respect for the individuals who work for us, they will never trust us.
  • We have to get better at communication. Especially now when face-to-face communication is limited, our communication style needs to include a lot more listening than ever before. The people who work for us will have ideas for improvement and innovation long before we do (they probably already have them), so ask… and then listen for understanding to what they say.
  • Leading by example isn’t an option. When things get crazy (like they have been), we can’t expect our team to stay calm and focused if we don’t. We won’t have all the answers (we never have) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to admit it. And DON’T tell people to calm down! That never, ever works; re-focus them instead.

The world as we know it today won’t be the same as the world six months from now. Never has been and never will be. For our companies, it’s important that we hone the leadership skills to deal with the VUCA we are continually thrust into. For our people, it’s imperative that we don’t neglect the leadership basics in the process.

The eight ball’s already rolling. Are you set?

Perfectionism Revisited

            … stop being a do-it-all

About 4 ½ years ago, I wrote a piece for At C-Level about being a Recovering Perfectionist. I thought I knew everything there was from personal experience about helping others over their perfectionist addiction. It’s simple, right? It’s just a matter of reframing success.

At the time, I readily admitted I was a controlling perfectionist and even enlisted some friends and family to keep me from slipping back to my old ways. Not the best idea I’ve ever come up with.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten any better. While I may never stop noticing when someone fails to live up to my unreasonable expectations, it’s been a fairly simple matter to stop bringing it to their attention. Like I’m doing them a favor letting them go about their day in blissful ignorance.

The problem? I’ve become a do-it-all.

Know-it-alls are annoying right to your face. In the military, we called them springbutts… the kind of people that spring to their feet in order to be the first with an answer. Often wrong but never in doubt. You probably have a couple in the office. Always seeking attention and validation, they’re just plain annoying.

Do-it-alls, on the other hand, are not always looking for attention… not overtly anyway. You can spot them when they grudgingly raising their hands and say, “I’ll do it.” And, while there are do-it-alls at every level of an organization, a do-it-all in a senior leadership position can absolutely cripple an otherwise high-performing team.

What does all that have to do with a perfectionism addict like me? Well, that’s my selfless motivation obviously. I know the task won’t be fun, but I’ll be doing it to my high standards which will make it better than if anyone else tried to do it. The problem comes when a leader tries to do it all and wastes their time ‘doing’ instead of leading.

Doing neither well, the do-it-all in them doesn’t get it all done on time, while the leader in them doesn’t see the negative effect it has on the team’s productivity. That only makes them feel more guilty and inadequate because they can’t do it all the way they want… and that makes them damned hard to work for (and live with). Face it, it’s impossible to meet all the demands created by our own unreasonable expectations. “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” is a lie.

So stop being a do-it-all. Here’s how

First, prune yourself. Like a tree that yields better fruit when the less productive branches are cut away, take stock of the things you’re doing and cut away the tasks someone else can do (aka delegate or empower others) – even if it’s painful because they’re not being done at the A+ level. Just DON’T delegate to another do-it-all at the next level, and don’t forget to let others know you won’t be doing it in the future.

After the pruning comes reframing success. We have to stop expecting perfection! We’re imperfect human beings who will be much happier without the regular beatings we give ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ (whatever that is). Some examples: Is fully compliant and on time successful? How about getting a message across effectively, kinda like giving the time without the instructions for building a watch? How about the board reaching the desired decision after your presentation – even if you missed a well-rehearsed point or two? Yes, we all strive to do our best, but we can’t be our best when we’re weary from carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Next, give yourself a cookie. Reward success. A pat on the back, a shout out during a staff meeting, an actual lunch break, or even a walk around the production floor just to talk to and check on others. Whatever gives the successful person (or us) a few minutes to bask in the afterglow of a job well done. Too often we jump into the very next ‘have to’ or ‘need to’ without purging our minds of the ‘should haves’ or ‘could haves’ that come with wondering if the task just completed was good enough. That’s the perfectionist in us rearing its ugly head.

Finally, stop babysitting other people’s monkeys. (Yeah, I’ve got some weird analogies.) We’re all ringmasters of our own circuses. After eight months of the craziest year I’ve ever seen, it feels like my 3-ring circus has been crammed into a single pup tent… lions, bears and elephants included. There’s barely enough room for the monkeys I carry on my own back, much less for other people’s monkeys. Just a colorful way of saying be careful which problems you try to help solve for other people. Being a solve-it-all will get us to the same unhappy place as being a do-it-all will.

Do-it-alls eventually become complainers because we’re so busy and no one ever helps us and we never get the credit we deserve. Got a little personal there, sorry. My mother tells me, “you kinda brought that on yourself,” and no truer words have been spoken. To me, anyway.

How about you? Can you spot the do-it-alls in your organization? Do them a favor and teach them how to be successful without trying to do it all perfectly. It’s a lifesaving skill that’s worth sharing.

It’s up to you, leaders… just not all of it.

Assuming Makes an… Well, You Get the Picture

Who out there knows the old saw about what happens when you assume?

Great. You can put your hands down. Yes, we all thought that was funny the first time we heard it – like when we were 12 – but please stop asking people that.

If we know we make an ass out of ourselves when we assume we know what someone else is thinking or how they’re feeling or what they want, why do we keep doing it? I guess I should have put assuming on last month’s list of prohibitions for this Roarin’ Twenties.

Here’s a recent example: I was asked by our volunteer coordinator, “Kevin, we want to show our volunteers how much they mean to us. What do you think about having a big breakfast for everyone?”

I replied, “They don’t want breakfast; they want a shirt so they feel like part of the team.” Undeterred, she matter-of-factly said, “We don’t have money for shirts, but we can buy everyone breakfast.”

The coordinator incorrectly assumed (as almost always happens) that everyone would feel rewarded and appreciated by eating a free breakfast. Even after being corrected, she still assumed she was correct.

News Flash: not everyone feels rewarded by the same token of appreciation.

A month later, the executive director asked me when I thought a good time to get the volunteers together for breakfast would be.

“Ummm… on the 12th of Never?”

Okay, that’s not what I said, although I wanted to. As the self-anointed appointed spokesman for the volunteers, I explained that while breakfast was a nice gesture, what they really wanted was a shirt like everyone else so they felt like part of the team.

Not surprisingly, I heard, “Yes, but the coordinator says we don’t have the money to buy shirts, but we all think a breakfast would be nice.”

Of course a breakfast would be nice… if you served it to me in bed.

But the last thing a sane person would want to do is to drive across town in this neck of the woods with the morning rush to eat a low-quality breakfast and then drive home. Or to lunch. Or to a happy hour – okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the drive home might be ill advised. What’s wrong with a shirt? Or a nametag, or a cubical sign, or a desk plaque… I’m not picky. But make it something that requires a little thought about what the individual or group would find meaningful.

The short points to my long story are these:

  1. If you want to express your appreciation for a job well done, genuinely express it as soon as you feel it. Not a pat on the head and a “good job” but an expression of sincere appreciation for a specific task done well or hard-won success.
  2. If you want to reward someone for exceptional performance or accomplishment – even with a small token of appreciation – do it publicly to add more meaning to making them feel like a valued member of the team. This assumes, of course, that they don’t mind being in the limelight, which leads to…
  3. If you want to give something meaningful to an employee you would hate to lose, ask him or her what that could be. A morning off maybe? A Friday afternoon off? Tickets to a sporting event? The movies? A play or ballet? Dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? The possibilities are almost endless! Just ask.

By the way, gift cards are nice, but if your employees are struggling for groceries or gas, that’s indicative of a different problem.

Other signs of assuming: “Would you mind…?” “Could you stay late to…?” “Can you come in this weekend to…?” “Did you remember to…?” “Did you fix the…” “Are you available to…?” “Do you have the information I need to…?” “Can you take care of this real quick?”  to all of which we assume the answers will be the ones we want to hear and not the reality of what’s going on inside the person’s head.

Those questions are asked so carelessly and thoughtlessly that it’s clear to the receiver that the person asking has no real idea or concern about the impact. There I go assuming again.

If any of this rings true in your organization, please put a stop to it, and if you see someone else making these kinds of morale-killing assumptions, please stop them.

After all, it makes someone look like an ass… and it’s not me.

How about it, leaders?

It’s up to you.

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