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.”

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?

Leaders Wanted! … Bosses Need Not Apply

Based on the way I read the latest engagement surveys, the number of bosses missing the opportunities their leadership positions are providing is almost mind-numbing. It certainly appears to be numbing the minds of the people working for them.

The storyline doesn’t deviate much regardless of what industry or government service sector I talk to: 1) new boss comes in or is promoted from within; 2) boss gets stressed by pressure to deliver; 3) boss stresses team to deliver; 4) team members burn out and get demoralized; 5) team members disengage or leave. The time spans to get from 1 to 5 vary, but it’s the same old song.

If you haven’t heard the song, that doesn’t mean it’s not being sung in your organization.

Disclaimer: I did not do research for this article. Occasionally I get pushback for stating as fact information that is obvious to me but not to the recipient. Did I do research to reach my conclusion? Do I have data? What was my sample size? Yada? Yada? Yada?

My answer is usually something to the effect that 58% of all statistics are made up. Or is it 72%?  Maybe 37%? Anyway, the average American has one breast and one testicle… you get the idea.

I digress.

Leaders have an incredible opportunity to improve the lives of the people who work for them. Imagine if your employees get up looking forward to the workday and go home happy with their efforts. What effect might that have on their productivity? On the time they don’t spend at work? On their interactions with family and friends? On their sleep?

Bosses who don’t particularly care about the out-of-office time aren’t leaders. They’re just bosses, managers, micromanagers, supervisors, or taskmasters.

What we (the royal we) know about employees that like their jobs is that they’re more engaged and productive. And the converse is true. Why a boss wouldn’t want to learn how to effectively lead, encourage, and empower his or her organization to produce and deliver quality results is beyond me, and yet we in the leadership development space run into that exact scenario time after time.

Please help me understand what I’m missing. In fact, email me and educate me: Why is it like this? Which part of the Leadership Triangle is the boss missing – the They Don’t Know How, the They Don’t Want To, or the We Won’t Let Them?

Bosses tell me: “I’m under pressure to deliver.” Duh! Who’s not? Leaders don’t pass the buck, so those bosses must work for bosses who do (who probably work for bosses that do, who work for bosses that do, etc., etc.). I waive the BS flag at that. Just because the jerkishness starts higher up doesn’t mean it has to be passed down to a lower level. As Kevin Berchelmann likes to say, “Leadership can hurt; wear a helmet.

Plain and simple, I can only conclude that bosses who don’t make the effort to be good leaders are self-centered. They care about themselves more than they care about the people who work for them. Not a new phenomenon, but certainly curable. As an example, look no farther than Coach Tony Bennett of the 2019 NCAA Champion Virginia Cavaliers basketball team who turned down a sizeable salary increase to provide additional opportunities for his basketball program and players.

I like the way Coach Bennett explained it, and I’m going to plagiarize and adapt part of his speech so that it applies to your particular business sector:

If it’s just about winning – if it’s just about being the best – then you’re running the wrong race. That’s empty in the long term. But if it’s trying to be excellent and do things the right way, to honor and benefit the organization that hired you, the human being you work for and the men and women who work for you, then that’s the right thing.

It’s a mindset shift: a boss has to understand that he or she can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A leader like Coach Bennett has a desire to elevate others above himself – the sure sign of a leader who others want to follow.

Actions speak louder than words. Here’s a couple of signs I use to distinguish the difference between your run-of-the-mill, worried-about-themselves boss and someone who’s trying to be a leader:

  • A boss says – and may believe – they care about their employees, but it rings hollow to the people she’s ordering around. A leader doesn’t have to say she cares; people know she cares by the way she demonstrates it.
  • A boss passes tasks down to the next level. A leader describes the results he’s looking for, describes success clearly, then asks what support is needed – and provides it.
  • A boss assumes expectations are understood because no one asks questions. A leader ensures expectations are clear by asking questions.
  • A boss does what he asked someone else to do because he doesn’t trust them. A leader trusts his people to do what has been asked by the established deadline and verifies accomplishment without micromanaging.
  • A boss makes employees feel guilty when emergent, high priority needs require time away from work. A leader finds ways to make her team flexible enough to react to unplanned adversity and deliver success.
  • A boss accepts credit for his team’s success. A leader gives credit to those who actually accomplish the success.

As I look back through my mental book of good leaders and bad bosses, it’s easy to categorize them. Yet thinking back about the hundreds of people who’ve worked for me, I’m not as confident about which category I fell into for them. It’s a shame I didn’t use such an easy rubric on myself at the time.

How about you? Where do you stand on the scale?

It’s truly up to you, boss or leader.