Leadership Lessons from My Fishing Trip

I recently went with some friends to Venice, Louisiana to do some gulf fishing. Those who know me are right now asking themselves what sort of alien has taken over my body, since they know well that I’m no fisherman. Not even a little bit.

But gulf fishing with a charter is different; there’s a crew on the boat that does the myriad things that need to happen to make fishing a success. Passengers just get to do the fun stuff. Essentially, we have no responsibility whatsoever, except reeling in fish.

So, a-fishing we went. One day inshore (not far from bunkhouse) and one day offshore (way the hell out there).

Good times had by all. Fish caught, fish eaten, cigars smoked, maybe even had a drink or two. Lots of laughs. But, much to the chagrin of some of my fishing partners (…”don’t you ever turn that off?”), I also noticed some appropriate leadership lessons from our days in the boat. Some things that apply to us once we get back onshore and return to our real worlds, where responsibility and accountability seems to run amok.

Lessons learned from my fishing trip:

  1. Leaders are responsible for specific results, not simply effort. Our boat captain, Ronald, took us inshore fishing the first day; the expectation was to catch our limits in red fish. Well, the reds weren’t exactly biting, but we still had a good time catching sheepshead, bass and flounder, along with just a few reds.Only that wasn’t the expectation. So, though Ronald accomplished something, which is nearly always better than nothing, it was not the result we set out to accomplish, and that’s on him.
  2. Real talent can do what mediocre talent cannot. Last year, same trip, our boat captain got us stuck on a sandbar while tentatively trolling in shallow waters. That’s a little too inshore for me, as we bailed out to help push. “Get out and help push” is not a conversation expected when fishing in a chartered boat.This year, Ronald said “hold on and don’t look down,” then slammed the throttles. We hurtled across waters more shallow than last year (inches deep) at breakneck speed. No running aground, no hopping out to push. A marked difference in boat leadership.
  3. Leaders decide, evaluate, then decide again if necessary. During our offshore day, Ronald was having difficulties finding tuna that would bite. We continued to do what always worked for him, until he realized it wasn’t; then we started doing things differently.While we were trying new methods, the environment (weather) shifted, and Ronald immediately pivoted back to his original process, and we started catching fish. Ten tuna in about 90 minutes, to be exact. Not huge, but I can already attest to their eat-ability.

    Decide, evaluate, decide again.

  4. There is always a bigger fish. Though we were ultimately successful in our tuna quest, we actually caught more than ten, only to have 2-3 dismembered by barracudas before we could get them in the boat. Disappointing, though not altogether surprising.You see, we were using bait fish (hardtails) that we caught earlier using a sabiki rig. Those small fish were just going about their business, not bothering anyone, looking for a simple meal. When we later used them for bait, the tuna would see these hardtails in unexpected waters, decide to be opportunistic and jump on ‘em. The barracudas, unable to run down a tuna in open water, would see the tuna on the line, in trouble, and attack from behind.

    Much like at work, you have (a) those just going about their business, doing their job, hoping to get paid; (b) those who are opportunistic, looking for a chance to get something they probably shouldn’t have had access to; and  (c) those who see others in trouble, and capitalize on their misery for their own gain.

    Admit it – you know some workplace barracudas.

There was also the lesson I learned about not trying to drink a beer in the face of a boat going 50 mph, but I’ll save that for another time.

Who says fishing can’t be work?

We Need Reinforcements… Send in the Leaders!

In my many years of experience growing, coaching and training leaders, I’ve discovered that it’s seldom talent… or training… or give-a-shit… that interferes with a leader’s success…, at all but the senior-most (the senior-most) level.

It’s reinforcement. Or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. Managers are trained, facilitated and coached, then return to the barren wasteland of their workplace, left to fend for themselves amid the hyenas, badgers and cape buffalos.

Identifying appropriate leadership behaviors is certainly valuable. Ensuring learners can understand and assimilate those behaviors… equally important. Senior leadership reinforcing those desired behaviors… priceless.

“In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus.”

Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.

In consulting terms, he means “When you ring the bell, the dog slobbers.”

And before any Psychologist wannabes (or the real deal) start to educate me on classical vs. operant conditioning, cut me some slack. It’s newsletter article, and I’m trying not to induce an eye-rolling coma.

Now, let’s be clear. Reinforcement isn’t reminding. Reinforcement is used to specifically connect awareness to execution. Or to quote the slobberin’ dog Doc: It’s “a consequence applied that will strengthen… future behavior.”

Like all things necessary and valuable, there’s a process involved, or in this case, four “elements:”

1 – Set expectations. And make ‘em clear, using specific, plain language. Employees sometimes have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair. And by clear, I mean the employee should be able to read it back to you, and you agree “that completely covers it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked if someone understands the expectations, and being told “well, they sure should,” based on peripheral, related discussions. I’m not talking hints, clues or innuendo here—I’m saying use simple, concise English language.

Unless of course you don’t speak English.In which case… ah, never mind.

2 – Follow-up. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job, exhibiting the very behaviors you are reinforcing. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good management.

3 – Consequences. Good and bad. Negative consequences generally sound like discipline or punishment and can serve as a learning opportunity. The purpose is to associate a behavior with something unpleasant, so they will not repeat that action (and others may see they are not supposed to act that way either). Positive consequences are still in response to an action, but this time, it’s a pleasant response to positive behavior.

Often times, when we give a negative consequence, we are actually reinforcing a behavior because we are giving that outburst unqualified attention, so be careful here.

4 – Modeling desired behavior. If you want someone to behave a certain way, the gold standard is to make sure they see you behaving that way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Actually, it is, though we oft-times manage to screw it up. We’ll promote positive motivation, then threaten someone because “it’s a special situation.” We’ll say we want no profanity, then let it slip because “we were provoked.” We’ll talk about timely meeting attendance while justifying our “hectic schedule.” No excuses. Model it, or don’t expect it. So, we reinforce to get the actual behaviors desired. Consistency, awareness, feedback, and a helping manner (we want them to grow and improve) are all essential.

Just do it…

Coaching Slugs …What if they just don’t get it??

Coaching Slugs… the uncoachable. Also sometimes known as:

  • Light’s on, nobody’s home.
  • She just doesn’t get it.
  • How’d he slip through HR?
  • The 80/20 rule…

Or, my personal favorite…

  • A waste of time.

As egalitarian and “fair” as we sometimes hope to be, there’s no getting around it — some employees can be a waste of our development time, and we should stop doing that the instant we realize that condition. Make an effort, to be sure, but get better at knowing when it’s time to fish or cut bait.

Perhaps they were mis-hired to begin with; perhaps they were promoted well past their ability to grasp new concepts; perhaps they simply don’t want to do what’s required… I don’t know, and at this stage I wouldn’t spend a ton of your time digging into the “why.” The “what,” is “I’m spending my time for no return, when I could be spending it on someone else for recognizable value.”

Not really much of a choice, is it?

Quality guru Joseph Juran said (loosely paraphrased) that we tend to spend 80% of our time on those things that deliver 20% of our aggregate value. I would argue that, when discussing employee performance, motivation, and one-on-one development or coaching, that figure is much closer to 90/10. Maybe even higher.

Really, how much time do you spend with your highest performers… your top 5%? I’m not talking MBWA face-time, drinks after work, or breakfast forced-marches. Nor am I describing time spent at those infernal time-wasters called “staff meetings.” I’m talking about working with that A-player one-on-one, investing your personal time, counsel and expertise, and making sure that those “A’s” receive more emphasis than the “C’s.”

Let’s be clear: time spent growing top performers is never, ever wasted time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for lesser beings.

I know this sounds harsh, and decidedly un-empathetic. I assure you it’s not. It’s simple pragmatism wrapped in what’s best for both organization and employee. Let’s face it, if you’re spending an untoward amount of time with an under-performing employee, it’s unlikely that same employee is “living the dream” at work.

Yes, we should do an appropriate amount of development for those employees who don’t quite “get it,” but seem to have both the wherewithal and the give-a-$h!t to grow significantly with some well-thought attention.  But be wary, critical, and skeptical; prepare to cut the cord the instant you realize you are repeating yourself, notice issues of ethics or integrity, or that the employee’s “light” just hasn’t “turned on.”

Remember, development — coaching, training, appropriate responsibilities — are a vital part of growing our future leaders. But they must bring a few things to the table that you simply cannot coach in.  You can’t train them to have a work ethic, for example. They must bring that with them when hired.  You cannot train them to be honest or ethical — someone well before you influenced that past repair.

And most important: some people, no matter how much we want to believe the best, just don’t have the intellect to handle the work at hand. I don’t mean high IQ scores; they just need to have enough gray matter to learn and perform the job at hand.

To quote that master of pithy responses, comedian Ron White, “no matter how hard you try… you can’t fix stupid.”

But you can share it with the competition.

Come together, right now… over me!

— The people side of merger integration

 

Ok, so maybe the Beatles reference was a bit much…

We were two companies, someone decided merger was a good thing… then just one big, happy family… right??

Bain Capital.  McKinsey.  Deloitte… don’t take just my word for it; the single biggest reason for merger or acquisition failure is NOT costs, lack of synergy, shortage of capital, incompatible strategy, etc.

It’s people. Failure to integrate cultures, directions, leadership and communities within an organization result in more failures than any market disapproval could muster.

Pay attention here; you’re paying big bucks for – usually – more than a simple asset. Realistically, even simple “asset purchases” are hoping for more than a simple Return on Asset; we’re always hoping for bigger, better returns that can only happen through the newly combined workforce talent. Again, people.

Let’s get right to it. I’m assuming you’ve competently determined that the merger or acquisition is a logical addition to your business. The technical part is fairly simple… a bunch of spreadsheets, a month or two of due diligence to verify the lofty promises, assurances, and statements from management. Now, let’s work on the more fickle side…

The most important thing to remember is communication.

Frequent, informative, helpful communications. The initial merger time is the most critical, since many of the employees in the acquired company will “overthink” the event, and may believe they will be summarily replaced. Or, more important to key performers, that they’ll lose their “key performer” status.

Frankly, you may actually WANT to lose some of them, but don’t you want the opportunity, at least, to have some input to who stays and who goes?

If you intend to make cuts, announce them and do them quickly. The longer it takes, the worse the retention results. Be sure, if staff cuts will occur, that they occur on both “sides” of the merger equation, if you really want a successful post-merger story.

Read this closely: the longer you take to make the “who stays and goes” determination, the more high performers you lose. It really is that simple.  Mediocre and poor performers simply fret endlessly, duck for cover, and hope to go unnoticed.

High performers don’t look at life – or their careers – that way.

And they have no intention of waiting around to see if you’ll give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. These people are infinitely employable, have probably got feelers out already, and in the absence of anyone helping them do differently, will look out for their own well-being.

Even to your detriment.

Next, assess the acquired company’s culture and strengths, and make the determination on what “works” for you, and what doesn’t. Once you determine what the “combined” culture will look like, no compromise — on either “side.”

Read that again. No Compromise. On the bus or off the bus. No one rides along for sightseeing.  No one – particular if influential and/or in leadership – gets to publicly buck the “new deal. Like the three musketeers, it’s “All for One!”

Remember — and this is ultra-important — there can only be ONE culture. Anything else will lead to fragmented actions, loyalties, and lack of direction.

Finally, be frank and open with the process. The worst thing that could happen is that the acquired employees lose trust in your integration process – they already ‘suspect’ you may not have their best interests at heart.

If my concepts above aren’t specific enough, here’s some detail on crafting a successful integration:

  1. Create an employee integration plan immediately. It takes hours, not days, don’t dilly-dally. Communicate that plan to others (both ‘”sides”).
  2. Execute to that plan immediately, quickly, and strongly. Patton was correct: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”Time is not on your side here. The longer it takes, the worse the outcome… guaranteed.
  3. Decide where you’ll compromise — and where not — and hold firm.
  4. Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Rinse and repeat. Even “nothing new to report” is better than silence.People fill ‘unknowns’ with their own “knowns,” and they are generally not the information you’d prefer them using to make decisions.
  5. Clearly define roles, accountabilities, reporting relationships, and performance expectations. It’s the very core of the employee agreement.
  6. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Don’t declare integration ‘victory’ too soon.Prematurely hailing success has killed many an integration, as a couple of key people/groups look around and say “not from where I sit, bubba.”

Good luck. Fun but challenging stuff.

Come to think of it, most of this applies to any substantial organizational change effort as well. I’ll be damned; surely must be just a coincidence…

 

 

Congrats on the promotion, LOSER!

So, just got that big promotion, eh? Now, you’re “It.” Big Shot. Grand Poobah. Boss Hog. El Jefe. Shiznit. The Big Cheese. Uppity-Muckety-Muck. She who must be obeyed. Kahuna.

Sounds great, right? Finally, you’re a CXO, with all the rights, privileges, honors and benefits occurring thereto.

So I say, Congrats! Finally, you have all that extra money, private elevator, fancy business card and a big, honkin’ corner office… you big LOSER!

Wait, what?? If I have just been promoted, why are you calling me a Loser?? What the hell have I lost?

Funny you should ask. I hate to be a buzz-kill, but you may want to put down that promotion drink for a second. You see, when ascending into senior-most leadership, you do lose some things.

For instance:

  1. You lose the ability to solely determine your success. Your success now depends almost entirely on others’ efforts and successes. Hint: this should be a clear indicator that their success is now your #1 priority.
  2. You have lost the ability to suggest. Unfortunately, at your new lofty stratum, suggestions sound more like orders than random ideas. Surprisingly, nearly all your suggestions will be implemented, post-haste. Complete with “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
  3. You lose the ability to consistently rely on a decision-making safety net. This one is tougher to realize before you’re there. Until in the seat, most of us don’t really understand the comfort we get from having others above us in the food chain to prevent our sheer stupidity from making the 6 o’clock news.
  4. You have lost the ability to hold a grudge. Sure, remember how people perform and behave, but you must now be willing to forgive and forget. Or at a minimum, forgive and empower (again).
  5. You lose the ability to vent outwardly to a crowd. No more temper tantrums when something breaks. Not that you should have been having them before, but…
  6. You lose the ability to have a bad day. At least the ability to display that you’re having a bad day. Your followers need — and have the right to – you at your best.
  7. You have lost the ability to not recognize that whenever your door opens, you’re on stage. The world (as you know it) is always watching; act accordingly.
  8. You lose the ability to be “off-stage” with anyone with the same paycheck. I’m not saying you can’t hang out (though I do advise restraint), but while hanging out remember you’re still on stage. Some things done cannot be undone, nor can things seen be unseen.
  9. Language—you lose the ability to use any of the following phrases:
  • S/He’ll get over it.
  • Titles don’t matter.
  • Just handle it.
  • Make it go away.
  • Because I said so.
  • I can’t deal with that right now.
  • That’s not the way we did it at XXX Company.
  1. Finally, you have utterly lost the ability to take credit for anything that happens on your watch, unless you were the sole human responsible for every single step of the way. In which case, you’re being paid too much. Don’t feel too bad about this one; you’re still 100% accountable for all of your purview, including the screw-ups, oopsies, and “my bads.”

And yes, yes… before anyone picks one or two of these and comes up with the clever “…but Bill Gates doesn’t have a degree” exception, I do realize that some of these may not be as absolute a prohibition as I’ve described. Let’s agree, however, that overall some of our up-to-now behaviors must go the way of the dodo bird (or cash, customer service or fifty-cent coffee) when we achieve senior-most leadership levels.

This top-10 list isn’t meant to be discouraging or restrictive; it’s simply a fact that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Some of those responsibilities can be displayed as much by what you don’t do, as by what you do.

And take heart… the list of things you get to do is incredible. You get to influence careers and lives; you get to have a personal impact on people and organizations; you get to make meaningful decisions so that others may succeed… there are lots more, but we’ll save them for a sequel article.