Leadership and the Devil’s Advocate: Saint or Sinner?

“Yes” men, “No” men, or some happy medium??  (“men” used for convenience, and is in no way gender-specific)…

Do we want our closest and/or brightest to agree with us, butter us up, lick our boots, kiss our derrière or any of a dozen other euphemisms for sucking up merely because it was our idea?

Or are we actively seeking constructive, challenging dialog??

Must we always have complete, obedient agreeance (not sure that’s a real word, but my baby sister Elizabeth always used it, so here it is), or do we really want diversity of thought?

Personally, I believe that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the final outcome or decision is always – ALWAYS – a better one.

Further, I’ll also opine that “diversity of thought,” particularly in leadership decision-making, is one of the only valid business cases for intentional, purposeful “diversity” in an organization.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about that crap-magnet Joe/Jane pain-in-the-butt employee who always disagrees, simply for the sake of disagreeing. Nor am I referring to those schmucks among us who are simply rabble-rousers looking for attention via a cause they can denigrate.

No, those are simply toxic jerks, and, like Bob, we should fire the a$$holes.

I’m talking about smart, well-intentioned people disagreeing and able to substantiate their disagreement with logic, data, and thought, sans logic’s evil twin, emotion.

I believe it’s a good thing. So, how do we get it to happen? Well, I’ll tell you how…

First, you must provide a safe forum. There must be an accepted arena, vehicle, or secret handshake, code-word, or ring-knocking ceremony where those with contrarian views know they can share.

And don’t be shy – advertise this forum.

Next, like birth control, there has to be a “safety-first” mentality. Those who may disagree must know (not just hear) that their well-thought, well-intentioned disagreement is welcome – in fact, expected – in the course of regular dialog. And that they won’t get shot between the eyes for doing so.

Finally, it’s gotta matter. Naysayers, contrarians, devil’s advocates – whatever the name – have to see their push-back accepted as input and occasionally alter decision-making some of the time if you really want it to continue.

Being “accepting” is good, but not good enough. You’ve got to be prepared to actually use their unpopular inputs. Go figure…

I once worked with a CEO who would frequently tell me that “If you and I always agree, one of us in unnecessary, and I’m keeping my job.”

Early diversity at its best. Thanks, Russ.

2020: Ready or not… — Here it comes!


New year, new you!

Resolutions, here we come!

This is the year it all happens!

Yadda, yadda, yadda… give it a rest, will ya? It’s not that we don’t want to do well every time the calendar turns over, because we do. It’s just that we don’t actually plan with purpose and set ourselves up for success.

So, how do we do that?

We treat it like we would any other ongoing project or strategy. Take an honest look at where we are and how we got here (today), decide where we want to be (desired state), then cook up the priorities and strategies to marry the two (fill the gap).

It just isn’t rocket science now, is it? Let me give you a process framework to consider…

1 – Get ready!

During your 2019 autopsy, ask yourself:

…what did I accomplish, specifically? What did you really get done, planned or not, that moved you forward during the year? Be honest, and try to be complete. Face it, you did a lot, even if you didn’t do it all.
what the hell happened?  What were those one or two things you did that you wish you could have a do-over, and why did they happen?
I learned. What lessons did you pick up in 2019, regardless of your level of achievement, that you can take into 2020 as a smarter person?

2 – Bring it, 2020! Do some soul-searching (maybe some alone-time on a deserted island, or full-service Marriott or something):

  • I’ll continue to kick butt in… here we take our known strengths and accomplishments and use them as our jumping off point for the new year. It’s always easier – and faster – to use existing strengths than to shore up our various and sundry weaknesses.
  • I have simply GOT to get better at… Here’s where we ask ourselves, “how did I go so long being so damned stupid?” or words to that effect. It’s where we consciously choose to do better at things that could help us reach our goals. Maybe it’s less ROT (Random Online Time); maybe it’s learning to say NO (we were so good at it when we were 2; what the hell happened?). Maybe it’s learning a skill that we know would help us move our 2020 needle. Whatever, figure it out.
  • My top 2-3 priorities are… here’s where we nail down what must happen versus what might. Stick to 2 or 3, 4 at the very most; any more than that, and well, you know how distracted we get, right? Better to move three things a mile than 30 things an inch.Here’s where we get real, by the way. Identifying those strategies is the key. Lots of books, consultants, articles and academics will then say you should create a detailed plan to accomplish those priorities. I say that’s a load of crap. Hear me out…Sure, flesh out those priorities a bit so you have a good grasp on what they mean; nail down a couple of steps along the way, that’s helpful as a reminder. It’s not, however, a lock-step plan. And I’ll tell you why: we struggle accomplishing those priorities because we believe a plan will guide us. Really? How many years will we continue to buy into that while failing? To quote my favorite Bob Newhart video, just stop it!

What do we do instead? I’ll tell you:

    1. Keep it simple. Rocket science is not your friend here. Unless, of course you’re a rocket scientist, in which case it is your friend. Or whatever. Just keep it simple. Revisit your priorities frequently (at least daily), and every single time you schedule something or add to your to-do list. Make sure what you’re doing advances one of those priorities, or just say no.
    2. Focus on process, not outcomes. Remember, life is a journey, not a destination. That’s not just a facebook meme – it’s a concept to embrace. Getting better is a much better objective than a completed task, and more likely to achieve a stated priority.

So Kevin, you ask, how do I know what to focus on in 2020? Well, if you don’t have anything burning a hole in your head right now that simply must be pursued, I do have some suggestions (go figure!)…

Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Some questions I might ask myself include:

  1. Who do you want to be, and why?
  2. What’s your biggest pain?
  3. What if 2020 is the year “it” all happens?
  4. If you could accomplish only one thing in 2020, what would it be?

Really ask yourself those questions, and then really answer them. Write or type them somewhere so you can revisit later.

And if you’re looking for some “getting better” suggestions to prime the pump, consider these:

  • Do less. Be more.
  • Be kinder (Really, Kevin, are you listening to yourself here?)
  • Embrace gratitude
  • Make time for you
  • Be positive
  • Listen more, talk less

Keep the process simple. It’s much like an organization’s strategic planning process; the value is more in the planning than it is the plan. It’s the thinking is what changes our personal trajectory, not a completed task or plan. Start thinking about 2020 today, if you haven’t already.

Remember: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is today.”

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.