Officers Eat Last

There is a tradition, especially among our military’s ground troops, that officers eat last. I’ll let the Army and Marines argue about who started it, but woe be unto the uninitiated Airman or Sailor who gets in the chow line out in the field with ground forces before all the enlisted men and women have been fed. I’ve seen it in action many times, and sometimes it means the officers go hungry.

When an Air Force airplane with a big crew lands at the end of a mission, the crew doesn’t put the aircraft to bed and head to quarters (or maybe the club) until everyone’s finished with their post-flight duties. The pilot in command (a good one, anyway) doesn’t leave the rest of her team behind because she’s the boss; she’s willing to pitch in because she knows other, less employed, team members will follow her example to the benefit of the entire crew. If the officers aren’t going to eat last, at least they’ll all eat together.

Who knows how the Navy does it on ships. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about that.

So what’s my point? What could that possibly have to do with the way you lead your team?

Eating last – making sure the troops are taken care of first – is an outward display of servant leadership, and the phrase obviously has less to do with who eats when than it does about putting others first. And while it should start at the top (at the CXO – the Chief Whatever Officer in your company), it sadly often doesn’t.

But don’t use a selfish C-suite or company culture as an excuse to “overlook” opportunities to take care of others before you fill your reward plate (or coffee cup). Here are a few ways I’ve seen servant leaders really shine in the workplace:

  1. First, your team has to believe you care. If you don’t, servant leadership isn’t for you. They’ll know if you’re faking it. That being said, I’ve seen that approach work for a short period of time with the result being a well-intentioned supervisor growing into a leader who actually cared for her team.
  2. Most bosses are blissfully unaware of two things: their own shortcomings and when their team is struggling. Becoming more aware of both before they become butt-biters only requires the use of a clever communication tool we call talking. Not texting or emailing, but an old-fashioned, honest face-to-face conversation about how things are going. It’s one of the ways to show you care.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of compassion. We all have our own three-ring circuses going on outside the office, and it’s important to know when life’s challenges are affecting a team member’s performance. The return on cutting someone slack during a difficult period is huge with the payout being a more trusting and loyal employee.
  4. Don’t pretend you’ve had nothing but success. Share what you’ve learned in your time in the organization, not in a “this is how to do your job” sense, but the lessons learned through experience – good and bad – that will help your team struggle less to deliver excellence. That may sound like a no-brainer, but if more leaders helped their teams learn vicariously from the leader’s past mistakes (we’re all human, after all), leadership development consultants like me would have to find a new line of work.

We’ve reminded scores of leaders over the past years that they can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A servant leadership mindset is one of those ways a leader can keep from looking upwards into the organization for signs of his success and stay focused on ensuring his team has what it needs to deliver that success.

And while you’re at it, get used to “eating last.” Make being considerate of others a habit not just at the office but at home, in traffic, at the store – wherever you interact with other humans. If eating last becomes a way of life, the worst that can happen is that people think you’re a thoughtful, unselfish person.

No better time to try it than now, leaders.

It’s up to you.

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.

Today’s Myth: Being the Best is the Best

A common narrative today tells us that everyone should strive to be the BEST at whatever they’re pursuing. Number One, the “go to” guy or gal, the Subject Matter Expert (SME for you acronym lovers).

After all, who wants to be known as Number Two?

My decades in the military taught me there was no better feeling than seeing the words “My #1 of __” on a performance review, being the distinguished graduate from some training course, or taking home the winner’s trophy from a competition – shooting, flying, it didn’t matter what kind.

Corporate America doesn’t hand out near as many medals and ribbons as the military, so you can’t always tell who the best on the office team is by looking at their clothes. But it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who the “go to” or the morning meeting SME is. Who got the biggest end-of-year bonus is harder to identify than the star ladder-climbers, but that information is often the worst kept secret in the office.

So, what’s wrong with a little competition in the workplace? Nothing, so long as we don’t create an environment where people either feel like winners or like losers. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be the “go to” problem solver, the SME, or even get promoted.

Heresy, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some people just want to come into work and do their best until it’s time to leave. They don’t care about being a star performer, but they’re good, dependable teammates and willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep their job. They typically like what they do, and they sometimes even like the person they work for. An occasional pat on the back makes them feel like a valued member of the team, and that’s good enough for them.

They are just as critical to a successful team as electrons are to an atom. They may not be part of the nucleus – they may not even want to be – but an atom’s not an atom without electrons. Let them be attracted to – and orbit around – the why of your organization and not force them into an unnatural role. Truth be told, some companies add so many morons to the neutrons and protons in the nucleus, it’s a wonder anyone wants to get promoted at all.

So how do you find out what part of your organizational atom they want to be? Ask them! Life’s demands change over time and so will their level of confidence about their competence. Those directly influence their desire as to how close they want to be to the organization’s center of gravity.

What if someone turns down a promotion? I still remember the first time I turned down a job offer. I was told, “You will never be asked again!” If you have an “up or out” culture, you may want to re-think your process. The best outcome I can think of after putting someone in a position they don’t want (or that they’re not prepared for) is that they leave the position as soon as possible.

Treating them like a left back on the B-team isn’t the answer either – that’s a sure morale vacuum in the making. Obviously, the better way is to talk to them! Find out what’s holding them back… outside commitments? Skills? Knowledge? Distrust? If you think they’re right for the job, help assuage their concerns and challenges.

No, I’m not asking you to make their world rainbows and butterflies. I’m asking you to be a leader to the people you want to keep on your team. “Life’s tough; get tougher” might work in Infantry training, but few of you reading this are preparing your troops for battle.

And speaking of being a leader, make sure you know what keeps them feeling like a valued member of the team. How? Again, ask them! You might be amazed at the loyalty you inspire when you offer to cut someone some slack during a rough patch at home.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s okay for a leader to want a team of people who come to work every day ready to do their best. But I think you’re doing your team a disservice if you expect them to be the best every day. Ask a recovering perfectionist if you doubt me, but I’ve found that trying to be the best didn’t lead me to be the best version of me like trying to do my best did.

Whadda you think? Willing to try a different approach?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Too Much Work, Too Little Time … Good Luck With That!

During my last stint in the Pentagon, I worked for more than a few senior executives who were notorious for wanting too much in too little time. High achievers learned very quickly that the reward for hard work was more work. In fact, my favorite quote (which I used like a club) was one attributed to the late Russian-born New York Times film critic, Abe Weiler:

“Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do the work himself.”

One of our worst habits is to assume, and part of that involves assuming we know how much time and effort a task is going to take when we haven’t actually accomplished that task under the current circumstances. It’s good to get called out for that occasionally… we can usually use a dose of humility.

My sister called me out yesterday for giving her unsolicited advice about how to ride her bike up a nearby steep hill. My suggestion that she just use a lower gear was met with a quick, “So says the man who doesn’t ride a bike.”


And a couple of days ago, I was facilitating a series of Leader Reaction Course tasks for a group from the Wounded Warriors Project. One of the tasks involved horizontally traversing a rock-climbing wall. When one of the participants attacked the wall, he was especially challenged by the fact that he’d lost his left arm in combat. There was plenty of unsolicited advice from his teammates about his next best move. Needless to say, no one was too offended when he called down, “If you think this is so f-ing easy, you come up here and try it.” Some tried with their left hand behind their back; no one advanced a single step.

What does this have to do with you as a leader in your organization? Well, we have a tendency to pile additional work on our teams without giving it too much thought. I assume you know you can’t be successful in your role unless the people who work for you are successful in theirs. But, your team doesn’t become more successful when you assume know how much time and energy additional tasks are going to take. Quite the opposite, and here’s why:

Low morale, higher turnover. For the most part, people come to work wanting to do a good job. When they come to work overwhelmed by yesterday’s unrealistic expectations, and you casually walk by – or worse yet email – with additional work, it’s a morale killer… even if you throw a “git ‘er done” at the end. When that becomes a trend, the frustration leads to burnout which leads to looking for another job.

Poor performance, missed deadlines. When your team feels overwhelmed by the workload, they’ll often rush to finish and deliver low-quality goods on time and/or deliver late; doing both is even worse. When pushing them to do more, you have to decide if you want it done right or take the risk of an on-time, low-quality delivery. We can do some things well, or we can do everything poorly.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to avoid (and sometimes push back) the ‘too much work, too little time’ conundrum:

Communication. There’s a handy little method of communicating called talking. It really works.

  • First and foremost, bosses – especially senior ones – don’t get to think out loud without their team suffering the consequences. Those who want to please their boss will immediately shift their efforts to making the good idea fairy happy, even if that wasn’t the boss’ intent.
  • When you assign projects, ask and listen to your team about how long they think it will take and what additional resources it might take. You hated drive-by taskings when you were in their shoes; don’t you think they feel the same? And if your top performer pushes back at the additional workload by saying, “I can do that, but I won’t be able to get this done on time,” you’d do well to consider the impact.
  • Create a culture that values honest dialogue about hard issues. Lip service won’t do here, and if your team is afraid to push back, you can go back to the low morale, higher turnover, poor performance, missed deadline section above . Being open to having discussions (two-way, please) about progress and challenges should keep unrealistic expectations in check.

Set clear priorities. Some of my bosses (especially the Army ones) were surprised when I’d walk in and announce my priorities for the day. I was giving them a chance to change my priorities before I got started, because later in the day when they came into my office and gave me additional work, I’d ask them where that fit in my priority list. Make sure your team knows what your priorities are, or suffer from the ‘some things well, everything poorly’ mentioned earlier.

Be flexible. Rigid adherence to self-imposed deadlines is an express ticket to failure. When things go wrong – which only happens when other people and organizations are involved – take a deep breath and adjust your expectations. It’s better to adjust the deadline or delivery date as early as you can, because it gives those who are depending on your team a chance to adjust.

Finally, don’t forget about your teams’ workload outside of work. Many of them are burning their candles at both ends, and stress added unnecessarily at work has a ripple effect on the other parts of their lives. You want them to stay? Make their families want them to stay.

We’re all human, and we like to feel productive, so it’s too bad we sabotage ourselves by taking on more than we can accomplish well. We do it as leaders, and your team does it to please you. The next time your boss gives you a new project, take a few minutes to consider how much time and effort you’re asking from your team when you pass it down the line.

Or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you, leaders.

Bob Fires A$$holes …and you should too!

Bob’s a client, the chief executive of a fairly large company in the Northeast. His name is not really Bob, but he really is a client, and a recent experience prompted me to share this (with Bob’s permission).

At the beginning of my coaching engagement with Bob, I conducted a 360-degree survey so we could get an idea of how others see him in his day to day activities and interactions. If you haven’t had a 360 survey—a real one—done for you, you should. It’s almost always eye-opening. And sometimes a bit scary.

But no one dies in the process, so you’ve got that going for you…

Anyway, while doing the 360 survey on Bob, I was privileged to meet and speak with many of the direct reports on his leadership team. Without getting into details that would make Bob (if he’s reading this) squeamish, the results were insightful and indicated he’s clearly respected. Mostly good things, and nothing really out of the ordinary.

Until I spoke with Jim (again, not his real name). Jim offered that Bob was direct, decisive, and had a low tolerance for incompetence. No real shocker, given Bob’s role. Then, he gave the “pièce de résistance” (that’s a copy-paste, I had no idea how to write that).

“Bob fires assholes,” he said.

So, that had me putting my pen down. “Do tell,” I replied.

It seems that even more than incompetence, Bob has a crushingly low tolerance for anyone, particularly in any sort of leadership role, “being an asshole.” The culture of this organization doesn’t support that kind of behavior, and given their size, the ripple effect of a single jerkazoid in the mix causes all sorts of problems. Problems that can easily, and more effectively, be avoided by just firing “the asshole.”

Admit it – you’ve read this with a slight grin and a knowing nod of the head. You know the assholes in your world, the people causing problems, discomfort and stress for others, and you know the ones that should be whacked.

So whack ‘em.

Performance challenges we can deal with. We coach, mentor, advise, bring resources to bear to help someone well-intentioned up their performance game. That’s as it should be, so don’t stop that.

But behavior issues, particularly in leadership, should be dealt with sharply, definitively and immediately. The impact is just too big on the organization. You know that already, so suck it up and do what needs to be done.

Bob fires assholes. Be like Bob.

(thanks, PP)

Don’t Tolerate Bad Behavior…

…or you’ll see a lot more of it!

Have I told you about the time I got fired? I was a 25-year-old hotshot, fighter pilot wannabe stuck in west Texas as an Air Force instructor pilot. I’d had three bosses in 18 months and was still in the process of breaking the new one in.

Yes, this is me.

I was sure he was coming around when he made me his right-hand man, but apparently, he thought being in a leadership position meant I was supposed to be a good example for others. He expected me to – get this – be at work on time.

I mean hey, if it was that important, my other two bosses would have said something. But this guy told me that if I was late again, I’d have to find a new job, and he wasn’t kidding.

After three decades of reflection, I can clearly see my part in the career-altering episode. You have to ask yourself though, “why was I late so often?” The answer is simple:

They let me be.

I tell you this because I was recently facilitating a group discussion for some developing leaders and asked the question, “what are you biggest people-related challenges?” They enthusiastically started describing their problem employees much faster than I could write them on the white board.

I didn’t think “useless, clueless excuse-makers” really got to the heart of the problem, so we drilled down a bit. It turns out they were challenged by people who: didn’t do what they were supposed to do, took advantage of their boss’ good graces, had their priorities wrong and had no sense of urgency, and were dishonest. These people were bad apples who were negatively influencing their co-workers.

Yes, I admitted, those kinds of people can be a challenge, and I asked them why those people had such bad behavior. They couldn’t come up with an answer and were truly taken aback when I pointed out the obvious.

Because they let them.

Oh, the protests! “Not us,” they insisted. “We can’t do anything about it.” “HR won’t let us fire them.” “She’s too good at her job to let go.” “I just have a big heart.” “My predecessor let him get away with it.” “She’s protected because…”

I threw the bullshit flag at them with just a short factual statement: “What you tolerate, you endorse.”

Plain and simple, if you have some bad actors on your team, you have to honestly see the part you’re playing. We can blame HR all we want for restrictive disciplinary policies, but HR also has policies about attendance and integrity. Know the policies and enforce them… or change them. We do a disservice to our good employees when we let bad ones “get away” with bad behavior.

Oh, and if their priorities are screwed up, they’re probably not to blame.

Does that mean everyone’s a nail that needs to be hammered? Of course not. Conventional wisdom may say treat everyone the same, but I’ll throw the BS flag on that, too. I’ve got a twist on the Golden Rule: treat them they way you’d expect to be treated under the same circumstances.

Ask yourself how you’d expect to be treated if you got caught lying to your boss. Or falsifying your timesheet. Or stealing from the company. Or increasing the workload for others because you partied too hard the night before. Or taking the morning off because ‘the company owes you’. You get the idea.

And don’t let the bad actors whine about you letting others get away with the same thing you’re disciplining them for! Simply remind them you’re not there to talk about anyone else’s behavior but theirs.

My mother will tell you that I had a bit of a rebellious streak. I refer to it as ‘a problem with authority’, which probably wasn’t the best character trait to join the military with. Why did I push the envelope my entire career? Because they let me. The military has a tendency to hold the boss responsible for the sins of the soldier/sailor/airman. My early experiences helped me lead those who also had ‘a problem with authority’ and help them back to the road to success, but I certainly came at it from a harder direction than I had to.

I learned to treat performance and behavior problems differently, and while I didn’t have an HR department to intimidate me, I arguably had more procedures and personnel processes to be knowledgeable of and navigate than most corporate firms.

Getting rid of bad behavior isn’t easy, but it’s not rocket surgery either. Tolerate it, and you’ll see more of it. Address it when you see it, and you’ll see less of it. Way back when, I was never concerned about losing my job. That was my error. If your bad actor isn’t concerned about losing their job, that’s on you.

It’s up to you, leaders.