10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART 1

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.

          — Aristotle

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part series

I love the Aristotle quote. There’s plenty of successful leaders and organizations that “know,” and they do well with that knowledge. The next level folks, they understand, and they teach that knowledge to others, sometimes even unknowingly.

I’m a lifelong student of leadership. I live it, breathe it, study it. I coach executives in it, and advise senior-most teams on its concepts, principles, and values.

Yet I learn – from those very people paying me for counsel. No, this isn’t a consultant-stealing-my-watch-to-tell-me-the-time moment; it’s how we all get better. We study, learn, execute, examine, and adjust – adapting to changing environments and results.

And I learn a ton from our clients. Watching them execute, adjust, and execute again. Testing, reinforcing, molding behaviors to fit their organization’s needs. It’s fun to watch. So, I’ve decided to share my learnings; after all, I learned them from someone else, it only seems fair to pass them on.

My Top 10 Lessons Learned from Clients, circa 2021:

1. Culture is everything. Let me say that again – culture is everything. With a successful, intentional culture, you can overcome a talent shortage, resource constraints, even an occasional supply chain breakdown.

We cannot, however, progress past an ineffective culture. Organizations succeeding (not simply surviving) through our recent apocalypse didn’t do so simply because their CEO was smarter than the others, or because their credit line held up.

Culture supports leadership and organizations when tangible resources cannot. People’s desires to succeed, based on their support of the organization’s direction and demonstrable principles, is what separates the surviving from the thriving. Get it right.

2. Intellect, purpose, and leadership are key. In senior roles, intellect, purpose, and leadership beat out subject matter expertise hands down. Sure, rockstar functional expertise coupled with these components would be fantastic; but frankly, that functional mastery is way down the list for success.

Not to say we don’t want subject matter expertise – only that, when canvassing candidates for those roles, don’t start with specific knowledge. Start first by identifying those with the intellect (business acumen, learning ability), purpose (desire to succeed, proven processes), and leadership (influencing, collaborating, driven).

3. Metrics without a system are meaningless. Metrics must be built on a system to be truly successful. A system is a repeatable process with predictable results.

Windfalls may make bonus time fun, but do not showcase leadership success. The occasional windfall is a pleasure for all to enjoy, to be sure. But a reliance on windfalls is like buying lottery tickets as a retirement plan.

If a manager is producing solid metrics but is unable to describe how they did it or equally unable to explain how those metrics will be repeated, they aren’t leading, they’re simply along for the ride. A fun ride, to be sure, but they aren’t leading. Good leadership takes advantage of good luck – it doesn’t require it to succeed.

4. High functioning teams disagree. A lot. Difficult discussions are essential for team success. Remember, when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is better served.

One of the most high-functioning leadership teams I’ve worked with didn’t necessarily start out that way. It wasn’t until they could trust each other enough to safely disagree – frequently if necessary and with strong passion and conviction – that they really began to gel.

This same team asked for 360 surveys on the entire team, not uncommon in my world. Then they wanted to share their results with each other; again, not entirely uncommon.

Finally, and this is the uncommon part, I facilitated a session with the team to share openly in groups how they could help each other build and improve on the strengths and opportunities identified in each other’s 360 survey. Courage, transparency, vulnerability. A big deal.

5. Low-hanging fruit creates early wins; allow grace with future misses and missteps. Frequently, we replace a key incumbent with someone who has all the necessary skills that the predecessor lacked. Maybe the former exec was disorganized and a slow decision-maker; we fill that position with a hyper-organized high-speed decision-maker, and it immediately makes everyone say “oooh,” and “aaah.”

Followed by “Damned, we’re smart. We put the right person in the right job!”

Then, reality hits. The honeymoon wraps up, and the new exec faces some challenges that maybe they weren’t prepared for. Maybe they make a bad decision or two. It’s easy to say, “I’m not sure we put the right person in that job.” In fact, however, mistakes will be made, some things will get screwed up, missteps will occur, judgments will be questioned.

Know this. Realize going in that Mr/Ms NewExec will do some great things initially (hopefully), but eventually will become part of a functioning reality where big things happen and mistakes are made; we accept both and move on. Accolades for wins, grace for losses. Two heads of the same coin.

Stay tuned for 10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART 2

The Workplace of the Future

The Workplace of the Future

Auntie Em, Uncle Henry…you’re not in Kansas anymore!

The Workplace of the Future Coming out of the chaos of the last 18 months, I’ve noticed that the people I work with have changed somehow. They sound the same and look pretty much the same, but they seem different. Kinda like Dorothy’s friends in the Land of Oz.

Has anyone else noticed it?

No, really. In the whirlwind that took us from Spring 2020 to Fall 2021, it feels like they changed while we were apart. Or was it me who changed?

What’s really changed is the workplace. While the difference may not as drastic as it was between Kansas and Oz, it may feel like that in some companies. Change is inevitable, yes, but poorly led and managed change on such a large scale can be the beginning of the end for previously well-led organizations.

The most obvious change is whether people are still working entirely at home, full-time at the office (if there’s an office left), or a hybrid of the two. Whatever the new work policies are, and how we came to the decisions about them, there’s a good chance we’ve alienated a fair portion of our workforce. So, what does the workplace of the future look like?

Lots of people are anxious about getting back out there after such a long time in some state of isolation. Just The Workplace of the Future getting back into an office with co-workers in close proximity and a commute that suddenly feels awkward can be intimidating, but having to sit in a meeting wondering who others have recently been exposed to can be downright paralyzing to some. Not to mention trying to avoid controversial topics in casual conversations in the breakroom.

That doesn’t bode well as we approach the end of another year and are trying to play catch-up to reach our 2021 goals.

So how do we as leaders decide what our future workplace is going to look like and how we’re going to ensure our teams can meet expectations? The first thing we have to remember is that nowhere in our organizations, departments, sections or teams does one size fit all. Where they work is different, what they do is different, and what we expect of them is different.

  • Start by focusing on what kinds of interactions between our workforce is critical to the success of the team (however we define it). Creativity depends on a different kind of interaction than routine information exchange. Some departments can get by mostly using phones and computers (HR and accounting come to mind) requiring much less face-to-face time in the office.
  • If it doesn’t matter what time of day (or night) a person’s work gets done as long as it meets expectations and is completed on time, why should we care when or where it gets done? Just one consideration as you decide who needs to be on-site daily.
  • Choice is important… within limits of course. The days of believing that everyone is more productive at the office than at home are long past. Does that mean each employee gets to decide where they’re going to work and on what days? The best answer I can give is maybe. It’s at least worth having the conversation.
    Employees’ sentiments change over time, so what they wanted in 2020 might not be the same at the end of 2021. What won’t work is re-establishing the old schedule with strict daily attendance policies.
  • Just be transparent in the decision making. Regularly listen to others to generate ideas and gain a higher level of buy-in.
  • We’ve gotten used to virtual meetings; do we have to go back to sitting around the conference room table? The Workplace of the Future If we’re still measuring a meeting’s success by who attends rather that what get accomplished, we’re still doing it wrong. And if we haven’t figured out how to have hybrid meetings by now, the IT team isn’t doing their job.
  • Speaking of meetings, what about reacting to the boss’s ever-changing meeting schedule? I would argue if that kind of flexibility is required, it’s easier to adjust virtually than physically, especially in the case of geographically separated offices.
  • Finally, we have to be willing to make different decisions when new information comes to light. I wasn’t alone in thinking – initially anyway – we were returning to some semblance of normalcy earlier this summer. My kids are mostly grown, so I didn’t consider the ramifications of a parent having to stay home with a quarantined school-age child – or two back-to-back.
    If we can let people work from home when their kids are sick, what’s keeping us from letting them work from home when their kids are healthy?

One last thought: talk to each other! No one in our generation of leaders has faced a global disruption in the workplace that we have – and are still having. You are not the only one having to make hard decisions about what the new normal will look like; others in your C-level and executive leadership circle are facing the same kinds of tough choices. Ask others what’s working for them and share what’s working for you. Together we can build a better workplace for the future.

There’s no clicking of heels and wishing things would go back to the way they were. It doesn’t have to be as crazy The Workplace of the Future as the Land of Oz, but we’re never going back to Kansas again.

Are You Micro-Managing??

By D. Kevin Berchelmann

This is an interesting and pertinent topic to me, as many of my clients – some aware, some not – suffer from Are you managing… or micro-managing?? the micro-managing malady. Are you micro-managing??

It’s been my experience that micro-managers do so from perceived need. At least in their minds, they feel they have a need for acute attention to detail in one or more functions, or with one or more (or all) members of their staffs.

From my experience, the underlying reasons driving this perceived need come from

  • real or perceived lack of competency of employee(s)
  • real or perceived lack of trust, and/or
  • an overdeveloped personal ego/sense of self-worth.

Realize that most people want to achieve the same results with fewer efforts, and micro-managing takes more effort, not less.  The dangers to me are straightforward: in times of economic scrutiny, we need employees to be thinking more, not less.

So, how can we tell if we’ve crossed that line into micro-managing? What do we look for, and what can we do?  Some indicators (and suggestions):

  1. You frequently get questions about problems without recommended solutions. Employees–even really good ones–tire of doing the legwork for a micro-manager, so will simply ask questions instead of problem-solving. “What do you want me to do?” is a typical question, and they are essentially absolving themselves of all ownership and accountability. You decide, you own. They screw it up, you own it.
  2. You regularly ask successful employees for status updates. Stop it. They didn’t get there by being an idiot, and you frustrating them isn’t helping. Set priorities and deadlines, and then allow employees room to do as you asked. Status updates, particularly those without major project milestones, are simply a display of distrust.
  3. Are you managing… or micro-managing?? You’re questioning others’ good decisions. Usually because you would have “done it differently,” or are uncomfortable you weren’t involved in the decision. How about just saying “Good work, thanks…?” Learn to shut up; diarrhea of the mouth is a career limiter anyway…

Eradicating micro-managing is the responsibility of both parties–the staffer being micro-managed, and the manager “doing” the micro-managing.

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: No Bite to a Leader’s Evaluation

By Kevin D. Ross evaluating_leaders_wolf_sheeps_clothing

I’ve never seen an annual performance evaluation that was worth half the time it took to fill it out. That’s especially true when it comes to evaluating the leaders in our organizations. Have you ever wondered why we even do them?

When we don’t assess a leader’s leadership, we continue to promote weak leaders that are doing more harm to our people and organizations than good. The evaluation is like a sheep in wolf’s clothing: weak and pretending to be something it’s not.

Most companies have an evaluation system to justify the subjective decisions the boss is going to make in the first place. HR may not like that statement, but damned near everything about an evaluation is subjective. What we measure is subjective, how we measure it is subjective, and how we weight that measure is subjective. And then we pretend to make turn it into something objective by assigning a number to it.

Then we use it, not for developmental purposes, but to justify a salary and an end-of-year bonus. We kid ourselves into thinking it’s meaningful for the receiver when it’s anything but.

evaluating_leaders_ Except for the money it represents.

I only had to suffer through 27 of those evaluations in my Air Force career (along with another dozen “training reports,” equally as bogus), and not one of them made a bit of difference in my progression up the leadership ladder. And none of them gave me a single developmental goal for the coming year, and none told the whole truth about what an annoying SOB I was (they used words like tenacious). Most just said I didn’t get the soles of my boots wet when I walked on water.

Okay, that last part was because I wrote so many of them myself.

We all get asked for our self-assessment in preparation for our annual feedback session, so we provide the inputs in a format that exactly fits the form the boss has to fill out. Seems like a no-brainer. I once got a boss at the Pentagon to sign off on a bottom line that said, “This guy’s so good I should be working for him.” His boss gave it serious consideration.

Why can’t we just use the evaluation for what it is and grade what’s important for leaders in the first place… leadership?

Sure, there are areas we want a leader to be successful in like financial success, goal achievement, innovation, internal and external processes, etc., but where and how does a leader’s leadership get evaluated so that developmental feedback can be part of that dreaded annual meeting? Stop for a minute and consider your own process to see if you can find a real leadership measurement in the results.

Do we just give leaders credit for the successes of their teams? Probably. That’s how the system works… at least evaluating_leaders that’s how I’ve always seen it done. And regardless of the number scale we use, there are only two possible outcomes: meets expectations or doesn’t.

The system won’t get better until we as the leaders’ evaluators are more involved (and I don’t mean in a micromanagement sense) in learning how a leader’s day-to-day behavior and performance affect the team’s performance. And how, leaders of leaders, do we do that?

By talking to people, that’s how.

I’m not suggesting a complicated and time-consuming method for collecting subjective “data” about the leader. I’m suggesting that we have a few 15-minute conversations with some of the people being led. We’ve written about Stop-Start-Continue before, and that’s a good method, but any way we can discern how their leadership behaviors – trust, ethics, integrity, communication, decision-making, inspiring others, etc. – are shaping their team and its success is better than what we’re doing now.

If we want to help a leader develop, we have to give him or her meaningful feedback about their performance as a leader. Sound pretty basic, doesn’t it?

I propose a leadership evaluation form that has two parts: meets or doesn’t meet expectations and developmental feedback. Tell him or her what behaviors they’re doing well and what behaviors could use some improvement. (And maybe set some leadership developmental goals for the coming year?) That would certainly be more useful that the way we do it now. evaluating_leaders_evaluation_form

That idea will never make it past HR, but it’s how we should help leaders lead and, in turn, help our organizations succeed.

Feedback? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Because it’s up to you, leaders.


Leadership and Healthy Conflict

Leadership and Healthy Conflict

Healthy conflict: Good.  Unhealthy conflict: Bad.  There endeth the first lesson…

The key, of course, is knowing the difference between the two.

I frequently say that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is better served. leadership_and_the_health_of_conflict_intelligence-scaled.jpg

By reasonably intelligent, I don’t mean an IQ number — just that the person communicating has enough mental snap to understand and discuss the issues at hand. And by well-intentioned, I’m simply referring to those without some boneheaded personal agenda.

The latter, as you’ve likely surmised, is the tough one.

So, we’re working on a complex project with a client. Opinions are buzzing around like mosquitoes during an August Houston evening. We’re cussing, discussing, arguing, persuading, etc. Generally a good time being had by all… and then it happens:

Unhealthy conflict rears its ugly head.

How do we know? Simple… conflict bridges from healthy to unhealthy when those involved in a difference are no longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives, and thereby set up a win-lose confrontation. Enter emotion, stage right.

No longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives. Even if baked in truth, simmered in fact, and stewed in verifiable data. In other words, we’ve begun using emotions alone to decide the fate of the discussion. Logic has left the building…

You know how you can tell? You hear phrases like, “Yea, well, I just don’t agree…” or “I hear you, I just believe you’re wrong (or whatever emotional outcome is desired).” These, and phrases/words like them, mean we’ve entered the unhealthy zone of conflict, and we’ve got to find some ways to get back to healthy conflict. For some methods and tools, see my BrazenLeader blog post, same subject.

leadership_and_the_health_of_conflict-scaled.jpg So, who cares? Why bother? What does it matter? Why should we spend one whit of effort on addressing unhealthy conflict? Well, besides the fact I just successfully used “whit” in a sentence (my grandmother would be proud), there are three significant reasons we should be concerned about leadership and healthy conflict in an organization:

  1. Most conflict is born of miscommunications. That’s right — the vast majority of conflict we see and enjoy are driven by communications missteps, rather than an argument of facts.

That’s why the “Logic has left the building…” comment above. Factual arguments seldom lead to unhealthy conflict. Disagreements, yes. Arguments, maybe. Near-violent discussions, sometimes. But unhealthy conflict? Rarely, since the very basis of unhealthy conflict is an emotional attachment to a position. That attachment was probably solidified when someone challenged the position with opinion, not fact.

  1. Understanding needs versus wants is the key to resolution. Most of the time, conflicts occur when we focus on our wants instead of our actual needs. If both parties (or however many are involved) would instead determine and focus on their needs, we could make immediate headway.

“I need all deliveries to be on time” is likely a want. “It’s important that deliveries be made with enough time for me to inventory and prepare the parts for installation — about 45 minutes — prior to forwarding to manufacturing” is an underlying need that drives more timely deliveries. “On time” is a performance standard that doesn’t necessarily represent a factual need — a want. “In time to inventory…” is a need based on demonstrable fact. See the difference?

  1. Unresolved conflicts degrade trust. Always.

Sometimes we “get over” a conflict, meaning that we force civility, feign acceptance, and disguise acquiescence as agreement. But the conflict, yet unresolved, still exists. And as long as it exists between people, the level of trust will decline. Since trust is the very currency of leadership, and since enhanced levels of trust allow and encourage discretionary effort, these unresolved conflicts are damaging — to both the leader involved as well as the organization as whole. leadership_and_the_health_of_conflict2-scaled.jpg

When you see a conflict go to the dark side — unhealthy conflict — recognize it for what it is, and address as soon as humanly possible.

You’ll be better for it, as will others.

Exemplary efforts are what we do, as leaders. Critical here when dealing with unhealthy conflict.



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