7 Leadership Hacks I Learned at Home… Courtesy of My Wife

Last week was my anniversary. After exactly 1,722 weeks of wedded bliss, I thought it might be time to give my wife some credit for the leadership lessons I’ve learned from her. No, she’s not a leadership guru, a coach, or a high-powered executive in some Fortune 100 company. She is, however, a damn good Physical Therapist who has zero interest in being part of the management morass she’s been subject to over the last 34 years.

And, trust me, she knows the difference between good and bad leadership behaviors. I know this because I’ve heard about every single one.

While I learned most of what I know about corporate leadership development and executive coaching from my best friend, Kevin (yes, Berchelmann), I learned about how to be a leader and how to develop leaders by doing it. Lead is an active verb – a skill that can’t be learned by just reading about it, and it requires building relationships – an activity that can’t be practiced when we’re by ourselves.

No, learning how to lead comes through doing, and getting good at it is, at times, messy and painful. Kevin and I don’t help people learn leadership skills that apply only to them office; these are life skills that apply to every situation where we interact with other people: at home and the office, with friends and family, in sports and professional associations, and through volunteering and military service.

We see good leadership behaviors, and we try to emulate them. We watch bad leaders and try to avoid their behaviors like the plague. Emulate and avoid are also active verbs, and I included try because we aren’t and won’t always be successful.

Just ask my wife.

Speaking of my wife, here are some leadership skills she taught me (or is still trying to teach me) that I’ve found beneficial:

  • When you’re wrong, be quick to admit it. I am often wrong but never in doubt. Just kidding, I know when I’m wrong. There can be no covering up or blamestorming; that just makes it worse. People know when we’ve got it wrong, so we just need to admit it, apologize sincerely and get over it. No one gets it right every time, and while being wrong can be a blow to the ego, the sooner we correct the mistake, the less damage it tends to cause.
  • When you’re right, don’t gloat. (“I told you so” is for second graders.) When we correct or give guidance, we can always do it in a way that doesn’t make others feel stupid or demeaned. Few things destroy a good relationship quicker than that.
  • Speaking of relationships, we’re only able to influence others because we have a relationship with them. I don’t particularly give a $#!+ what strangers think about me, but I do care about the feedback I get from those I care about. Similarly, people generally don’t care what we think unless they respect us (unless they just like to be unhappy), and they won’t respect us without knowing and having a relationship with us. The ability to influence others to put forth effort to achieve a shared goal doesn’t exist without a relationship. We don’t have to be buddies, but they have to believe we genuinely care.
  • Your opinion has less value if you express it the very first second you form it. (Shooting from the hip only works in the movies.) When we shoot off our mouths, we clearly haven’t taken time to consider the message we’re trying or likely to get across or how the receiver will interpret our words… especially if we’re angry or frustrated. The old “count to ten” rule actually works when we use it.
  • If you need help, ask for it. (“I got this” doesn’t always git ‘er done.) Most of us suck at asking for help, and while I’ve written about this before, it’s worth repeating: it’s better to ask for help early when we need it than wait until it becomes a crisis. Earlier allows us to make a needed course correction while later affects everyone involved in the product/service delivery chain. Needing help isn’t a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary, it’s a sign that you have your feces collocated and you’re comfortable and confident in your own skin.
  • “Because I said so” rarely ends the discussion. (“But why?”) Simon Sinek has a great TED Talk about explaining the why. Directive leadership (management) may be effective in a crisis or for a safety issue, but explaining the ‘why’ contributes to encouraging – and empowering – others to make good, well thought out choices in the future.
  • Finally, nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little. Looking for a little quiet time? Leave a big emotional wake behind you and you’ll get it. ‘Nuff said.

There you have it. If you promise not to tell her, I’ll admit that having this wonderful woman in my life made me a better leader. Everyone who’s ever worked with me or for me knows she’s the saint behind the success.

What interpersonal skills learned from one aspect of your life can you apply as leadership skills in another? Are you willing to try to admit when you’re wrong? Build relationships at work? Hold your tongue? Ask for help? I think everyone will be pleased with the results.

It’s up to you, leaders.

The King Returns! — Malicious compliance is alive and well

Some years ago, I wrote a piece for this newsletter about malicious compliance and how, as the King of Malicious Compliance, I learned to put the crown down. Something I read the other day reminded me of that piece (and some past behavior I’m not too proud of) and reinforced the importance of clear communication.

One of my favorite malicious compliance behaviors was rigid adherence to poorly worded policy memos. Following the Letter of the Law while intentionally violating its intent brought about an opportunity for me to rub someone’s nose in it (Words mean something!) without admitting I’d done something bad.

Don’t get me wrong, policies are necessary in any organization and writing them down keeps them from being WoMs (Word of Mouth). HR needs policies, Safety needs policies, Compliance needs policies, on-site medical personnel need policies – anywhere we need fundamental guidelines for decision making and a general action plan to guide behaviors to desired outcomes. And they should clearly communicate expectations.

But policy memos should NOT be used to correct bad behavior.

That’s called collective punishment, and in some situations is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Punishing the entire group because of the actions (or inaction) of the few is an egregious abuse of power and a damned poor example of leadership.

If one person accidentally messes in their pants, would you make everyone wear diapers? Lord, I hope not. That person would likely be the guest of honor at a blanket party, which would be bad in an office environment and besides, it’s illegal (and probably against some HR policy).

Real life example: twenty years ago, I inherited a high-performing organization and the 19 policy memos my predecessor had written, including (and I’m not kidding) a specified time limit for changing out of your workout gear into your regular office clothes. All of the memos were the result of one or a few people not adhering to commonly accepted professional behaviors (and hygiene standards), and they were all easy to maliciously comply with.

Flash forward to the present: I was recently a recipient of a new policy memo for a government organization I volunteer with. Its intent was to remind people of the professional behavior expectations for our new virtual meeting environment. Apparently, we needed the guidelines after much flailing during the first attempt at a leadership-only staff meeting and a larger group meeting with a couple dozen Microsoft Teams novices. As you might imagine, not everyone was in their home office looking their best.

First, the memo insisted that we all become proficient in video conferencing (ha!) and went on to establish a dress code and personal appearance standards. Like “no shorts, no chewing gum, no smoking, and no hats.” Really?? Two months without a barber and unless I either braid or bead my hair, the best thing I can do on camera is to wear a hat! In other words, a poorly worded policy memo with lofty expectations from a boss who was irritated by the motley crew’s laid-back appearance and lack of new computer skills.

And just like that, the King of Malicious Compliance made his appearance. With as much snarkasm as possible, the boss said, “I guess Kevin didn’t get the memo, to which I replied, “I did, and I’m not chewing gum, I’m not smoking, this isn’t a hat, and you have no idea what – if anything – I’m wearing below the waist.”

As leaders, why do we leave ourselves open to crap like that? Why don’t we:

  1. Address the behavior – individually if possible – but sweeping policy statements for the entire organization will leave most everybody wondering what put a burr in the boss’ saddle. And the offending individual(s) will likely miss the point entirely.
  2. Don’t hold people accountable for performance they’ve neither been trained or equipped for. We weren’t all born with a smart phone in our hand or a laptop in our backpack. Some of us have never even taken an online course, so cut us some slack and maybe make sure we even have a computer at home and a tutorial.
  3. Clear expectations are set through clear communications. We screw it up all the time because we take for granted that the receiver knows what we mean. (If there’s any doubt, ask your spouse.) Vaguely written communication is unfortunately the norm… crystal clear to the writer but clear as mud to the reader and best used as a cure for insomnia.
  4. Lastly (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), make sure the policies that were in place two months ago have been updated to reflect this dispersed working environment. Don’t assume that everyone knows what flexibility means… if common sense were actually common, more people would have it.

Everyone’s world has changed, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t unsettled. These are uncommon times that require leaders to step up their games and think differently about how they communicate and set expectations for their teams.

Maybe we should call it uncommon leadership?

It’s all up to you, leaders.

A New March Madness

No basketball, but plenty of hoops to jump through

I used to think March Madness was all about basketball and our annual trip to Augusta for the Masters. Nothing like a global pandemic to change my perspective.

COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. These are uncertain and anxiety-producing times. Some changes are temporary (like the toilet paper shortage), but some will have a fundamental and lasting effect on how we view the workplace. Sam Cooke had it right five and a half decades ago when he penned: “…It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come…”

But what an incredible opportunity for leaders!

Many of us are under a “stay at home” order, and if we aren’t, we’re likely to be soon. And, while there was already a trend toward working remotely in some sectors, most businesses were unprepared to be forced almost overnight into such a radical change. It may be too late for a company to get ahead of the trend, but there are some things that leaders can do to keep at-home workers connected and productive.

First, understand the home situation. Everyone has a different situation. Some have small children that want mommy’s or daddy’s attention. Some have kids on extended spring break who are bored to tears and occasionally have to be fed. Some have a home office where they can work in peace, and some have to work at the kitchen table, distracted by the television, doors slamming, music blaring, and other people FaceTiming. Understanding everyone’s home situation will help you…

Manage expectations but make them clear. It’s going to take time to get used to the new work routine, so have a little patience. Working remotely is rarely a 9 to 5 environment, so remember to focus on the result rather than the process. Describe what success looks like and let them accomplish it. It might even require some flexibility on expected work hours, so if it doesn’t matter if the work gets done between 9 a.m. and noon or between 9 p.m. to midnight, include that in the expectation.

Make sure the proper equipment is available. Not everyone has the same computer set-up at home – assuming they have a computer.  The I.T. department may have to work overtime to help remote workers get their equipment configured with the programs they need, especially if they have to do it over the phone.

Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Remote workers often feel isolated or forgotten. There are plenty of programs like Zoom, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams that allow leaders to see and talk to remote workers to check in, offer encouragement and help if needed. Kind of like a virtual reality version of “management by walking around,” it doesn’t need to be a long, drawn out conversation. Also, be available and responsive to requests for guidance or help. Remote workers can’t exactly stop by the boss’s office whenever they’re stuck on something.

We’re eventually going to get through this, but we’re going to have to step our game up a few notches when it comes to providing support for our folks. If the company is going to survive this transition to the new normal (whatever that turns out to be), it’s up to the leadership being creative and finding new ways to make their team successful.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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.

Prohibition is Back

Welcome to the new Roarin’ Twenties!

The last Roarin’ Twenties was a decade marked by economic growth, technological advances, an increase in leadership opportunities for women, a society tired of war, fascination with material wealth, and a social media obsessed with sports and entertainment celebrities.

Déjà vu all over again?

Not to be a buzzkill, but we all remember how the last Roarin’ Twenties ended – with a stock market crash and the Great Depression. Let’s see if we can keep from repeating some of the mistakes this decade.

Lest I fail to mention Prohibition, I’d like to propose some Prohibitions in the workplace that will get the New Year off to a good start. No need for a Constitutional Amendment, just good leadership.

Prohibit hiring and promotion practices that reward butt-snorkelers and overlook hard-working members of the team. (The difference between brown-nosing and butt-snorkeling is depth perception.) My experience with this came mostly from the military, but it’s no less present in the corporate world. Promoting people who are better schmoozers than contributors or hiring people less qualified than some you already have has an outside effect on your top performers. It reeks of favoritism and is demoralizing to the team, and it is a great way to drive the best to another organization.

Prohibit making good doers into unprepared managers. Just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they’ll be a good manager. And that’s okay. But making someone who has not been developed as a leader a “Manager” is somewhere between risky and foolish. The other doers may put up with it for a while, but there’s a good chance they’ll start heading for the exit as soon as their spouse gets tired of the complaining. Instead, develop the high potentials who have the characteristics necessary to influence others to execute the company vision BEFORE they become supervisors and managers… and don’t stop. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: effective leadership development can’t be a one-and-done activity.

Prohibit making Feedback a dirty word. First of all, feedback is neither inherently good nor bad; it is simply factual information provided to an individual or group with the purpose of helping them grow and improve. It can contain critical information, but it doesn’t have to; letting people know what they’re doing right helps them grow and improve. The key is to give and take feedback often enough in a non-threatening environment that it becomes second nature.

And for heaven’s sake, if the company’s HR process for providing feedback is cumbersome or otherwise user-unfriendly, scrap it. If it’s only used once a year for compensation purposes, scrap it. If it’s only used to document sub-standard performance, scrap it. If it promotes a one-way diatribe instead of an honest conversation, scrap it. Get the idea?

Prohibit cookie cutter rewards systems. There are certainly money-grubbing exceptions, but for the most part, people want to feel valued for doing worthy work. It’s not always about getting a big paycheck (though it doesn’t hurt); there are plenty of ways to reward your folks. The key is communication and finding out what makes them feel rewarded. For some, it’s recognition; for others it might be time off. If money is their deal, a surprise bump in pay or unexpected bonus, or maybe even a charitable contribution in their name. Promotion consideration and leading a new project are also ways to let them excel at more worthy work. How do we know what makes them feel rewarded? Of course… ask them.

Prohibit making more work the reward for good work. Not saying don’t challenge your top performers with more difficult assignments, just remember that being an excellent worker is both a blessing and a curse. Stay vigilant for signs that someone is close to being maxed out or risk burn out. And never, ever give someone more work because someone else is skating by doing the minimum or less. Short of lashing someone in public, I can’t think of a quicker way to demoralize a valuable contributor to the organization.

These a just are few ways to get the year off to a good start with the team, because ultimately, it’s about them! If some of these prohibitions ring true where you work, talk to your folks and find ways to rid the workplace of the behaviors. Get the team’s buy-in by involving them in the solutions. The alternative is inviting disruptive turnover for preventable reasons. Not the best start to the new Roarin’ Twenties.

It’s up to you, leaders.