Who’s In Charge Now? …and who’s going to do all the work?

I have been vexed lately by organizations that have failed to have a succession plan for key leadership positions. Why do we do that to ourselves??

Maybe a better question is “why do we keep doing that to ourselves?

It seems to be filed in our playbooks as one of the Lessons Not Learned. And I certainly have no stone to throw at anyone who finds themselves in the all too familiar situation, as I’ve watched two organizations I’m involved with lose individuals – one expectedly and one not – who were more important to our success than we realized.

Apparently, we created single points of failure instead of points of success.

Attrition is a normal part of any organization as key contributors leave for greener pastures and senior leaders slip into retirement. Some we know about ahead of time and others catch us off guard. Whichever the case, changes in leadership at all levels are disruptive.

If we’re prepared for the change, the inevitable disruption is short-lived. If not, the gap in leadership talent can have a catastrophic effect. And I’m not just talking about changes in C-level leaders where we’ve groomed a single heir apparent. Instead of grooming more single points of failure, good succession planning focuses on developing a pool of talent with the desirable skills and experiences to fill either specific or a broader range of roles.

Sound simple I know, but I acknowledge it’s not often easy. Identifying “high potentials” is difficult in most organizations because we’re not intentional about opening discussing people with the potential to become more senior leaders. Heaven forbid we develop someone who then replaces us before we’re ready (even though I’ve never seen that happen).

We’re also often caught off guard by departures which is usually indicative of not being as in tune with or aware of our team members intentions or retirement planning. Most of the time, that’s on us.

To make matters harder, we have senior leaders in the organization who are loathe to cause a domino effect by moving internal talent (who has to be replaced, which leaves a vacancy that has to be filled, etc.) and defaults to recruiting external talent. This, too, is disruptive and tends to frustrate the individuals who think they’re ready for the promotion and who will start looking for another job.

Who’s In Charge Now - Succession Planning A few years ago, I worked with a mid-level leader who was hired to corral diverse activities under a single manager. As successful as he was, there was no one individual who could stand in during his absences because they lacked the knowledge of and insight into what was going on with the other managers in the division. Frustrated at being the single point of failure and the Chief, Cat Herder, he left the company with no one ready to take his place.

Then who did his function revert to? His boss, of course, and we can imagine how that turned out.

Two pieces of free advice (physician, heal thyself?): Stop the lip service about succession planning, and start being intentional about growing talented individuals to take on greater responsibility in the organization.

So, where do we start? How about the current and projected organization chart?

Have we forecasted prolonged absences? Are we planning to add another team to handle growth or downsizing to respond to market changes? Are we even thinking about who’s going to replace those we know are going to retire?

Then:

  • Make talent identification a regular part of conversations between senior leadership and boards of directors. We just don’t do that enough. The C-level needs to lead the way!
  • Decide on the skills we need to lead the company through current (and I dare say, future?) challenges to the organization. Do we even do that once a year when we half-heartedly participate in strategic planning efforts? Again, those skill gaps need to be a more regular topic of discussion.
  • Organizations that take it seriously will then assess and develop their identified talent to close the skills gap critical for the continued success of the company. This can go a long way to motivating and retaining our future leaders which, in turn, reinforces our corporate culture.

In my experience, both in the military and corporate worlds, we don’t do effective succession planning because it’s hard. No, we don’t do it because we’re too focused on the day-to-day performance of those who work for us.

We can admire the organizations that make leadership transition look seamless, and shake our heads empathetically at those who suffer through it, but what are we doing to make sure the disruption isn’t detrimental to our own company?

What’s it going to take before we do something about our lack of succession planning?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Just listen to me and stop trying to solve my problem!

There’s an old adage that goes: If you’re always solving other people’s problems, you will always be solving other people’s problems. That’s a serious issue for me, and I struggle to stop babysitting other people’s monkeys as part of my own circus. It’s a hard habit to break when you’ve been raised to be a problem solver.

Good leaders tend to be good problem solvers… which is probably why they’re in a leadership role in the first place. Those who are always complaining to their boss about their problems don’t usually climb very high on the ladder of the success.

Great leaders teach others how to solve their own problems. But first we have to learn how to listen.

While raising two beautiful, smart, and successful daughters, I learned (and relearned many times) the hard lesson that sometimes they just wanted me to listen for understanding and not listen to solve.

It’s the same in leadership.

If we haven’t learned how to just listen without trying to solve, we’re robbing our team of opportunities to grow and improve. And we’re certainly not empowering them. In short, we’re hindering their success.

I like to watch people stumble upon a solution while they’re just describing a problem to me. I’ve certainly done it, and I remember the sense of accomplishment and burst in self-confidence that came from it. That burst of confidence can lead to increased performance and better problem-solving skills – just what we’re looking to develop in our teams.

And it’s directly related to increasing empowerment in our future leaders.

Well, you ask, how do we know when they’re struggling with a problem they’re capable of solving themselves? We should know because we’ve been having regular conversations with them, listening for clues they’ve run into a hurdle. Great leaders have enough emotional intelligence to be in tune with their team and can tell when something’s wrong.

If we just can’t discern if they’re looking for a solution after listening for a few minutes, ask them. No, really, ask them if it’s a ‘listen and solve’ or ‘just a listen’. It’s taken me     quite a while (decades, if you ask my girls) to intuitively know which it is, but we get better at being able to tell the difference the more we practice listening for understanding.

Then comes the active listen skills, which I’m certain we’ve all mastered:

  • Pay attention! Ignore the phone, don’t look at the computer and if we have space, we should get out from behind the desk and sit without a physical barrier between us.
  • Show that you’re listening. And I’m talking about non-verbals here, but here’s a warning: non-verbal cues can be easily misunderstood! Case in point: when I’m talking with my wife, I nod when I agree with her; she nods in understanding without regard to whether she agrees. No wonder I’m wrong so often. It’s the same in the office, so we have to be careful about interpreting – and misinterpreting – the nonverbals we’re seeing. Clarify if needed but don’t end the conversation without a clear understanding of the next step(s).
  • When the opportunity presents itself, don’t offer a solution! Now’s our chance to ask Do you want my advice? Or how about Do you want me to help you brainstorm a solution? Make it clear we’re not going to do it for them or tell them how to do it, but we will provide the encouragement they need to come up with a solution by themselves.
  • Don’t offer the solution Have I mentioned that before? Action-oriented leaders tend to listen until they’ve devised a solution. We grow impatient when the speaker doesn’t get straight to the point, especially when the best solution (ours) is so obvious. The trouble with that is there’s a good chance the problem we just solved in our minds was misdiagnosed to begin with, and we jumped to the wrong conclusion. We wouldn’t know it, of course, because we were only listening to solve.

Final thing to remember: no one likes anyone telling them how to do something. At least no one I know. The quickest way to shut down communication is to start a sentence with, “Well, you just have to…” It’s also a good way to end up with malicious compliance.

So next time someone says, “Hey boss, I have a problem,” don’t be in a hurry to tell them how to solve it. We’ve probably seen or heard of it before, and we likely know the fix, but we’re not doing them any favors by cutting the learning opportunity short by listening to solve.

I find I still have to practice just listening. Maybe you do, too.

It’s up to you, leaders.

What Does Leadership Feel Like?

Probably too many attempts have been made to define leadership.

Everyone seems to have their own favorite definition. More often than not, it comes down to “I know it when I see it.”

So instead of struggling to identify good leadership behaviors, try looking at the leaders you’ve known through a different lens. Ask yourself, “What did their leadership feel like?”

We follow leaders because they make us want to, not because we have to.

It’s an emotional decision to choose to do more than we have to. Good leaders get our discretionary effort because we appreciate how they make us feel – about them, about ourselves and about the organization.

Over the course of my Defense Department career, I had the privilege of working for and with a number of great leaders…and some not so great ones. There were as many different styles as there were leaders. I tried to emulate the good ones; the bad ones…well, let’s just say not everyone served as a good example.

I’ve got the stick for a minute

My favorite leaders aren’t necessarily charismatic or outgoing; they’re not all what you would call mighty warriors; some can’t (and never could) hold their own at the club on Friday nights.

But they all have one thing in common: they have a certain presence about them – leadership presence – that makes me like being around them.

Here are my three favorite traits that I think contribute the most to their leadership presence:

They have integrity. They don’t just do the right things when no one’s watching. They also have integrity you can feel, knowing in your heart that they’re going to do what they say – or own up to it when they can’t. No false promises and no excuses. Because of that, I trust them.

They’re genuine. They’re comfortable with who they are, and there’s no pretense in their behavior. Their compassion is real. That doesn’t mean they’re cuddly – far from it – but I’m certain of what they stand for and what they care about. They don’t have a need to be seen as more than they really are, and they don’t hide behind a veneer.

They’re present. They make me feel like what we’re discussing is important to them. They don’t act distracted by what else they could be doing, and they’re not casting glances at their computer screen or caller ID. It’s very calming, even if it is only for the few minutes I’m with them.

How do you make your followers feel? Look for the common traits in your favorite leaders and decide where you could improve your leadership presence.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

Who’s Got Your Six?

F-16 Fighting Falcon Thunderbirds with the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron perform aerial maneuvers Aug. 3, 2014, during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Stan Parker)

 

As a leader in your organization, who’s got your back? Are the people you work with watching out for you, or do you find yourself covering your six to keep from being stabbed in the back?

I’m a huge supporter of the new “Got Your Six” campaign to unite nonprofit, Hollywood, and government partners to support our veterans. The commercials touch my heart when they explain how “got your six” means we’ve got our veterans’ backs as they transition from military service to civilian life.

They also remind me of lessons I learned in pilot training about how to keep enemy pilots 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 corporate language: where someone is about to make us look stupid or incompetent without us realizing it.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

“Covering your six” is what pilots have wingmen for. Wingmen fly behind and above (or below) their lead to make sure no one sneaks up on them. Pretty easy analogy to apply to the corporate world, but who’s really going to watch your back in the dog-eat-dog of office politics?

Your followers, that’s who. The ones who trust you and know you have their backs as well.

When a leader is intentional about creating an environment of trust and cooperation in the office, coworkers watch out for each because they want the organization to succeed. 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.

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 that trust only if your actions are consistent with your words. If you’re one who talks about others behind their backs, you can assume you’re also being talked about. If there is even a hint that you might sacrifice one of your people for your benefit, you’re headed for a Julius Caesar ending.

Now, I’m not Pollyannaish, and I’ve certainly worked in places where the motto was something like “it’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” Competition can be fierce, and insecure or power-hungry people backstab from a variety of motivations.

But 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. You’ve got to be out there doing your best for them, trusting them the way they trust you. That’s the leader’s role, and while it’s vulnerable, it doesn’t have to be unsafe.

So who’s got your six? It’s up to you.

You have the stick.

I Hate Goal Setting

Goals On Dartboard Shows Aspired Objectives And Desired Targets

 

 – it’s not the same as setting goals.

I hate goal setting. The whole business of it.

That’s why I was surprised by a conversation I had with my daughter a couple of weeks ago. Home from her fall semester, she was describing her goals to me – her grad school goals, financial goals, career goals, life goals – and I was amazed. When I asked how she learned about goal setting, she unexpectedly answered, “from you, of course.” I didn’t know I’d passed goal setting to another generation, because (if I hadn’t mentioned it) I hate goal setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate setting goals; it’s the only way I know I’m on track to where I want to go. But there’s so much of the institutional process of individual goal setting that is all about process and almost nothing about the accomplishment of what really matters.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Leaders who have vision and can translate it into an executable plan that followers buy into can be the Holy Grail to an organization. On the down side, results can easily be torpedoed by the intermediate level managers who don’t know how to get the people who actually DO work to set performance and developmental goals that support that vision and plan.

I would propose that few leaders have a good grasp on the goals his/her workforce sets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t held accountable for their workforce’s results. It’s past time to get involved.

As 2015 begins, we’re all being encouraged (or required) to set goals for the coming year. We all know what SMART goals are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound. I prefer clear, concise, actionable, and tied to organizational performance, but that would require a new acronym (C-CAT would only appeal to a very narrow audience).

The problem is that a step in any direction looks like progress to someone who doesn’t know where they’re going. Most organizations are horrible at getting individuals to understand how what they do contributes to organizational success. That breeds mediocrity at best, and sincerely misdirected efforts at worst.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: For the workforce to actually tie their performance to what leaders expect their organizations to do this year, serious effort is required at every level. Leaders and managers have to get more involved in communicating both how their people can contribute to organizational goals and how they can develop into more productive contributors.

STOP asking them to write nebulous performance goals (like “superior customer support measured by no negative customer comments”) and developmental goals (like “take an online course on how to get along with others”). They can easily meet those goals with no actual benefit to your organizational goals whatsoever.

Jack Welch said that before you’re a leader, success is all about growing yourself; when you become a leader, success is all about growing others. For those of you who think you’re leading, it’s about time you get more interested in helping others set meaningful goals than in setting your own.

It’s up to you.

You have the stick.