So, What do we do NOW?

And what is this “normal” you speak of…?

Let us agree these are crazy times. If nothing else, that should transcend political, geographic, or ideological lines. We are, without a doubt, in crazy times.

But what does that mean. I mean, to those of us in leadership, what does this all mean? Do we do more of the same? Do we need to do things differently? Do we need to poll the masses for the proper course?

What’s it all about, Alfie?? Sorry, got a bit carried away there; that movie was even before my time…

Seriously, though, these are unusual times. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the things being thrown at us, and just as easy to forget that leadership is a skill, a learned skill, and it has not changed much in a couple thousand years. It certainly has not been by changed into something entirely different during because of this pandemic.

Having said that, our leadership emphasis may change, depending on circumstances, environment, or even demographics. One day communication wins the day; the next day, resolving conflict is front and center. Both are leadership skills we should all possess but can become more or less urgent based on the times. So, what about now? Well, let us look at where you may want to focus your attention today. Here are some leadership tenets that are more important today due to the craziness of this pandemic:

  1. Lead by example – a positive By this I mean you should be certain to walk the talk; demonstrate you are taking the same hits as your staff. If there are sacrifices, yours come first, and subsequent events are shared among all.
  2. Be you. Even if you may not be all that great. Genuineness trumps contrived or opaque. Aggressive transparency is a virtue right now. Few secrets, no cliques, and display some vulnerability in your leadership behavior.
  3. Demonstrate empathy. Be nice. Don’t lead with “because I said so.” Be nice. Calm voices. Phrase your needs as a question, not a demand. Frequently ask about personal situations, challenges, and status. Demonstrate empathy, and realize you probably have a little more time to deal with some weirdness than you previously had. It is just courtesy. Be nice.

Now those three above are good, maybe even great (if I do say so myself). But how can we manifest these things? Apply them? Actually do something right now that represents them?

How about:

  • Never mention sacrifices without including your own. True, sometimes the relative differences are meaningful (10% reduction of a $1M salary may not immediately hurt as much as 10% of a $50K salary) but do it anyways. It shows that you are part of it, even if people roll their eyes a bit.
  • Check in regularly, and on a schedule. Employees need to know pre-determined opportunities to consult with you, where they can share concerns (work and personal) and ask questions. And do not forget to share back. Strangely enough, the more you share, the more others will share with you.
  • Do not rely on text, email, and chat alone. It is not enough, and 100% inadequate for anything negative, critical, or correcting.
  • You are now part of the personal support group for every employee in your charge, like it or not. They will look to you regarding how to act, react and behave to changes and/or crises. Ask how they are doing (frequently), get status updates, offer resources, listen intently, explain your feelings, etc.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Do not let assumptions grow into rumors, that grow into unchallenged fact. Examine resentment and malcontent behavior quickly. Remember that you are on-stage, all the time. All eyes are on you. Words, behaviors, body language, all of that. Meaning can be derived from the color toothpaste you use, so be mindful.
  • Encourage Innovation. It need not be a brand-new invention, or some uber-styled disruption. It may mean to simply create something new out of the old ways of being. It can be innovative to ask for input from a team of 12 if prior process had a single decision-maker.

I hear people arguing over “back to normal,” “new normal,” “old normal,” “there’s no going back to old normal,” etc. Give it a rest. “Normal,” as a broad descriptor, changes all the time. What was normal today was not normal five years ago, and no pandemic came in to do dirty things. Normal evolves; there is yesterday then today.

Prepare for tomorrow’s normal. It may look like yesterday’s,… it may look entirely different.

My final thoughts: Do not miss this opportunity to “manage normal.” Take a hard look at what is happening in your world right now because of this zombie apocalypse and evaluate before reverting to the ways of old. If today’s ways have some good, positive, productive elements, keep ‘em and make that part of tomorrow’s normal. If what we are doing today sucks, ditch it and do what you used to do. Make your own rules, then make your own “normal.”

Your future, your decision. Make the best of it.

Ready or not, here we come! — Businesses are reopening

Ready or not, here we come!

That used to be announced at the beginning of a kid’s game, hide-and-seek. Today, it means that states, businesses, the whole economy engine, are starting to reopen. You may violently agree with that, or vehemently disagree with it. That’s for Facebook, twitter, letters to the editor, and pithy online commentary.

Because like it or not, ready or not, here it comes!

So, let’s be smart about this. I will let someone else cover the PPE aspect of it, as I believe that’s been given enough airtime that you can easily find data and information that supports your desired direction. Instead, I just want to chat about the people.

Your folks will be concerned, no matter where they are on the open yes/no continuum. Fear of a business failing and their job at risk, or fear of being exposed or exposing others to the virus. Either way, there’s fear there. Pay attention to it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

People will be a little different (or a lot), especially at first. Proceed purposefully, while being mindful. No ham-handed moves. Think it through.

Some specific tips:

  1. Communicate. Ask for inputs on everything, where even remotely feasible, and give updates so frequently it’ll make you laugh. Varsity-level communications efforts are in order. Two or three various-topic task forces may be a good idea to consolidate inputs and channel feedback.
  2. Keep an eye out for those who may be overwhelmed mentally or physically. Depression, anxiety, and exhaustion are real, and we you’ll need to keep a keen eye out for them all. Liberal use of PTO and EAPs may be in order. Now is not the time – at least initially – to simply say “suck it up, buttercup.” As fond as I am of “Sit down, shut up and color,” that needs to be holstered for the short-term.
  3. Check in regularly. One-on-ones are crucial now, even if brief. Take temperatures (figuratively, unless literal temps are necessary at your place), ask probing questions, see what you can do to help. Don’t rush these, especially at the beginning. They’ll find a natural rhythm before too long.

Use those check-ins to do some real coaching. I’ve created a few videos (more on the way) around Coaching in a Crisis.

Feel free to let us know what else we can do, and if we can help in any way.

When Leadership is Damned Hard

— Or, how to make a difference when no one’s paying attention.

Ok, as Forrest Gump so adroitly quoted his mother, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and I certainly don’t mean to call anyone reading this “stupid,” per se, but leading in challenging times – in this case, either the current pandemic or the resulting economic fallout – isn’t hugely different from day-to-day leadership.

But, it’s not the same, either.

We know for certain that burying our head in the sand and pretending that nothing is going on is positively insane.  It’s like your 2 year-old child closing his or her eyes and saying, “you can’t see me.”

Though many leadership skills are timeless, and probably should be exhibited anyway, there are always times when certain skills have more value than others. Leadership is, after all, situational.

If you find yourself between two slugs arguing, it’s probably not the time to haul out your skills at articulating your leadership vision. A necessary skill, to be sure, but at that moment, conflict resolution knowledge would be really helpful.

Situational, see?

There are 5 keys to leading effectively during these times; they aren’t necessarily difficult, but to ignore them will certainly make your life more difficult. Here goes:

See and be seen. Visibility is a big deal. Now’s not the time to hide out in your office, pining away the days or lamenting for better times. Get out, be seen, be available, and most importantly, be heard. High visibility coupled with credibility is a near-guarantee of success in uncertain times. People need to see you and see you frequently. Hopefully face-to-face, if your environment and social distancing allow. Otherwise, lots of phone calls, zoom calls, videos and texts.

Want cheese with that whine? No open complaining, commiserating, or whining. Not now (assuming it was ever ok, which you know, of course, that it isn’t) especially. Your folks don’t need to know that you feel as out of control as they do. It doesn’t help them, or you, to believe that things are hurtling out of everyone’s control. I can’t promise that your positivity will always result in their positivity, but I can promise that any negativity will spread like wildfire.

Remember, you were young once. Put yourself in employees’ shoes; this is uncomfortable, and there are plenty of unknowns.  Lots of things are changing around them, and they are neither fully aware of the rationale, nor in control of, any of those things changing. They need you to chart a course, plan, devise a strategy, set courses, directions, goals and objectives.

Make sure all are aware of them, and why they exist. This is a big deal. Crafting and disseminating plans in the face of adversity can be a powerful call to action. It gives employees a focus… a guide to action instead of incessant hand-wringing and worry. Further, it provides an outlet – a vent, if you will, for that nervous energy that seems to engulf some people when things around them are changing faster than their comfort allows.

Ask and ye shall receive. Now’s the time to ask for input, comment, and feedback from all, and do so frequently. Help people understand as best you can, explaining why things are happening (when you know), and why we’re taking this specific action. But in the end, they’ve got to do what’s necessary to help your organization (and themselves) weather this storm. Don’t allow so much discourse that we forget why we’re here. Empathy is important, but grace and accountability can coexist.

Execute. No, I don’t mean public hangings or firing squads, as tempting as they may be. I mean taking decisive action. A key component in motivation and employee trust – in helping employees see that all is not lost, that forward progress isn’t stalled, and that someone is in charge – is the act of action. Think, decide, act. A cornerstone of exemplary leadership, and a management skill that serves us all very well. Even when you don’t feel in control, recognize that your locus of control is infinitely larger than many you lead. You aren’t “still considering it” or “thinking about it,” you’ve decided not to do that for now.

Demonstrable actions are the key to success during challenging times. People will look to you for behaviors, thought process, attitudes, positivity and most importantly, direction and active leadership. You’ll eventually be judged on what you did, and doing something will always trump not.

Lead, and do so demonstrably. Do something.

Size matters… doesn’t it? — Are bigger leaders better?

Some CEOs make a lot of money. Their Vice Presidents don’t usually make as much, and the directors, managers, and other leadership positions still further down the organizational food-chain make even less.

I know, I know… you’re thinking “Well duh, Kevin; did you come up with that ‘blinding flash of the obvious’ on your own, or did you have help?”

My question here isn’t about the dinero, per se. And it’s not about relative value among leaders. No, my question is about the absolute value of leadership. Is the absolute value of a senior leader greater than that of a less senior leader to those s/he leads?

I think not. In fact, not just no, but hell no.

Like many of you, I travel frequently, and I thought about this question when I boarded a puddle-jumper for the 51 minute flight from Houston to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It occurred to me then, that the pilot of this 24-passenger prop-job likely made considerably less money than the pilot of the 737 I’m on right now.

But if he screws up, I’m just as dead as if he had made twice the money.

In other words, to the recipient of the leadership behavior, it doesn’t matter that some other leader may make more money, have a bigger office, or have a fancier title.  In our selfish, singular worlds, what matters is how that leader leads… to me. Right now.

Think about it…

  • All leaders must create and leverage relationships to succeed, and
  • All leaders are responsible for developing employees so they can support and succeed at their vision, and
  • All leaders personally and directly affect the total career and employment environment of those they lead.

Just like those pilots, who regardless of the size of their aircraft or wallet, personally and directly affect my safety as a passenger.

In other words, the impact you have on the people you lead, as individual people, doesn’t increase/decrease based on the scope, title or compensation. Or even your place on an org chart.

So, then, if I were to continue my unsavory double entendre approach to this article – all the while you keeping your mind out of the gutter – I might say that it’s not the size of the leader that matters, but what the leader does with that size that really counts.

Yes, I might say that…

(a related article on being courageous as a leader, can be seen on my blog, The Brazen Leader.)

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.