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.

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.

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.

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.

Sayonara to 2019

Kinda scary to think we’ve put another decade in the can. For the millennials out there, I don’t mean the trash can; it’s an old movie-making phrase that means we’re done. And speaking of a decade, last month marked the tenth anniversary of my retirement from the United States Air Force.

I’m not one who likes to live in the past, nor am I asking anyone to look back over the last decade and reflect. That would take introspection to the extreme sport level, and living with a mindset of “if only I’d…” is depressing.

Instead, I thought I’d look to next year and use some of the lessons learned in the 20-teens, and I learned a bunch! Ten years ago, I thought the corporate world would be a lot different than my experience in the military. Leadership-wise, I was wrong

And since we’re in the leadership development business, here are some things I’d like you to consider as we head into the next decade:

  1. In my experience, people join organizations they want to be part of… and then quit because their boss is a jerk. Or their boss’s boss is, or a dominant co-worker, or someone who’s making them feel bad about themselves. Usually, it’s the way they feel they’re being treated.

    Why do we think we’re treating our team well when we talk to them like we talk to ourselves? In 2020, let’s not do that. Let’s talk to other people like we’d talk to our grandparents, with respect and consideration for how they receive the message we’re sending. Which leads me to…

  1. In general, we humans suck at communication. We build trusting relationships through communication and our actions, and when we’re not intentional about our communication style, we screw it up. When we don’t communicate freely with our team, we’re screwing it up.

    You see, people want to know what they want to know, and when we don’t share information they think we’re hiding something. And that’s a dangerous road for your team to travel. If they think we’re hiding something, our integrity goes right out the window.

    Then there’s the delivery. Drive-by taskings aren’t appreciated. Blame-storming in meetings isn’t appreciated. Public shaming (yes, co-workers can hear over the cubicle partitions) isn’t appreciated. It’s good to remember that constructive criticism doesn’t have to be painful.

    I often hear the excuse, “I’m just being direct.” Yeah, right. I used the mantra, “Not everyone thinks I’m an asshole because not everyone’s met me yet” as an excuse to be direct, and it was never appreciated. We can ‘cut to the chase’ without ‘beating around the bush’ and still not come across as a jerk. Maybe we should try that in 2020.

  1. I’ve noticed that a lot of us tend to stop learning and developing when we feel like “they” (whoever “they” are) have stopped making us. Not when “they” stop expecting us to develop but when “they” stop making us. Nowhere is this truer than in leadership.

    If I had led my 500-person team the same way I led my 50-person team, chaos would have reigned. If I’d led my 50-person team the way I led my first 5-person team, there’d have been a mutiny. In case you’ve missed our thoughts on the topic, good leaders aren’t born any more than good athletes are. Without development and intentional practice, neither reach their potential.

    I thought I’d seen all the ways bad leaders cripple an organization when I left the military. I was wrong. In 2020, I’ll strive to continue to hone my leadership development and coaching skills to help others not continue the bad habits they learned as young supervisors.

  1. Finally, we all feel a huge amount of pressure and stress at the end of the year. Take one part holiday crazies on the road, one part delivering what the boss wants before close-out, and one part family stress to deliver the ‘”perfect” Christmas; shake vigorously in a holiday party atmosphere that you don’t feel like being part of; squeeze it all into your work clothes and go to the office.

    As managers, we pretend none of that affects us. As leaders, we need to admit (at least to ourselves) that we’re just human. And then we need to cut our team a break and acknowledge they’re struggling with the same things. Cutting your team a break when they’re struggling is one of the most powerful ways I know to build loyalty to your organization.

    In 2019, I learned again that when I act like I’m only human, my family is easier to get along with, my friends are easier to get along with, my clients are easier to get along with, and my co-workers are easier to get along with.

If you haven’t experienced that yet, maybe 2020 is a good time to try.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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.”