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.

The King Returns! — Malicious compliance is alive and well

Some years ago, I wrote a piece for this newsletter about malicious compliance and how, as the King of Malicious Compliance, I learned to put the crown down. Something I read the other day reminded me of that piece (and some past behavior I’m not too proud of) and reinforced the importance of clear communication.

One of my favorite malicious compliance behaviors was rigid adherence to poorly worded policy memos. Following the Letter of the Law while intentionally violating its intent brought about an opportunity for me to rub someone’s nose in it (Words mean something!) without admitting I’d done something bad.

Don’t get me wrong, policies are necessary in any organization and writing them down keeps them from being WoMs (Word of Mouth). HR needs policies, Safety needs policies, Compliance needs policies, on-site medical personnel need policies – anywhere we need fundamental guidelines for decision making and a general action plan to guide behaviors to desired outcomes. And they should clearly communicate expectations.

But policy memos should NOT be used to correct bad behavior.

That’s called collective punishment, and in some situations is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Punishing the entire group because of the actions (or inaction) of the few is an egregious abuse of power and a damned poor example of leadership.

If one person accidentally messes in their pants, would you make everyone wear diapers? Lord, I hope not. That person would likely be the guest of honor at a blanket party, which would be bad in an office environment and besides, it’s illegal (and probably against some HR policy).

Real life example: twenty years ago, I inherited a high-performing organization and the 19 policy memos my predecessor had written, including (and I’m not kidding) a specified time limit for changing out of your workout gear into your regular office clothes. All of the memos were the result of one or a few people not adhering to commonly accepted professional behaviors (and hygiene standards), and they were all easy to maliciously comply with.

Flash forward to the present: I was recently a recipient of a new policy memo for a government organization I volunteer with. Its intent was to remind people of the professional behavior expectations for our new virtual meeting environment. Apparently, we needed the guidelines after much flailing during the first attempt at a leadership-only staff meeting and a larger group meeting with a couple dozen Microsoft Teams novices. As you might imagine, not everyone was in their home office looking their best.

First, the memo insisted that we all become proficient in video conferencing (ha!) and went on to establish a dress code and personal appearance standards. Like “no shorts, no chewing gum, no smoking, and no hats.” Really?? Two months without a barber and unless I either braid or bead my hair, the best thing I can do on camera is to wear a hat! In other words, a poorly worded policy memo with lofty expectations from a boss who was irritated by the motley crew’s laid-back appearance and lack of new computer skills.

And just like that, the King of Malicious Compliance made his appearance. With as much snarkasm as possible, the boss said, “I guess Kevin didn’t get the memo, to which I replied, “I did, and I’m not chewing gum, I’m not smoking, this isn’t a hat, and you have no idea what – if anything – I’m wearing below the waist.”

As leaders, why do we leave ourselves open to crap like that? Why don’t we:

  1. Address the behavior – individually if possible – but sweeping policy statements for the entire organization will leave most everybody wondering what put a burr in the boss’ saddle. And the offending individual(s) will likely miss the point entirely.
  2. Don’t hold people accountable for performance they’ve neither been trained or equipped for. We weren’t all born with a smart phone in our hand or a laptop in our backpack. Some of us have never even taken an online course, so cut us some slack and maybe make sure we even have a computer at home and a tutorial.
  3. Clear expectations are set through clear communications. We screw it up all the time because we take for granted that the receiver knows what we mean. (If there’s any doubt, ask your spouse.) Vaguely written communication is unfortunately the norm… crystal clear to the writer but clear as mud to the reader and best used as a cure for insomnia.
  4. Lastly (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), make sure the policies that were in place two months ago have been updated to reflect this dispersed working environment. Don’t assume that everyone knows what flexibility means… if common sense were actually common, more people would have it.

Everyone’s world has changed, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t unsettled. These are uncommon times that require leaders to step up their games and think differently about how they communicate and set expectations for their teams.

Maybe we should call it uncommon leadership?

It’s all up to you, leaders.

A New March Madness

No basketball, but plenty of hoops to jump through

I used to think March Madness was all about basketball and our annual trip to Augusta for the Masters. Nothing like a global pandemic to change my perspective.

COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. These are uncertain and anxiety-producing times. Some changes are temporary (like the toilet paper shortage), but some will have a fundamental and lasting effect on how we view the workplace. Sam Cooke had it right five and a half decades ago when he penned: “…It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come…”

But what an incredible opportunity for leaders!

Many of us are under a “stay at home” order, and if we aren’t, we’re likely to be soon. And, while there was already a trend toward working remotely in some sectors, most businesses were unprepared to be forced almost overnight into such a radical change. It may be too late for a company to get ahead of the trend, but there are some things that leaders can do to keep at-home workers connected and productive.

First, understand the home situation. Everyone has a different situation. Some have small children that want mommy’s or daddy’s attention. Some have kids on extended spring break who are bored to tears and occasionally have to be fed. Some have a home office where they can work in peace, and some have to work at the kitchen table, distracted by the television, doors slamming, music blaring, and other people FaceTiming. Understanding everyone’s home situation will help you…

Manage expectations but make them clear. It’s going to take time to get used to the new work routine, so have a little patience. Working remotely is rarely a 9 to 5 environment, so remember to focus on the result rather than the process. Describe what success looks like and let them accomplish it. It might even require some flexibility on expected work hours, so if it doesn’t matter if the work gets done between 9 a.m. and noon or between 9 p.m. to midnight, include that in the expectation.

Make sure the proper equipment is available. Not everyone has the same computer set-up at home – assuming they have a computer.  The I.T. department may have to work overtime to help remote workers get their equipment configured with the programs they need, especially if they have to do it over the phone.

Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Remote workers often feel isolated or forgotten. There are plenty of programs like Zoom, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams that allow leaders to see and talk to remote workers to check in, offer encouragement and help if needed. Kind of like a virtual reality version of “management by walking around,” it doesn’t need to be a long, drawn out conversation. Also, be available and responsive to requests for guidance or help. Remote workers can’t exactly stop by the boss’s office whenever they’re stuck on something.

We’re eventually going to get through this, but we’re going to have to step our game up a few notches when it comes to providing support for our folks. If the company is going to survive this transition to the new normal (whatever that turns out to be), it’s up to the leadership being creative and finding new ways to make their team successful.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Assuming Makes an… Well, You Get the Picture

Who out there knows the old saw about what happens when you assume?

Great. You can put your hands down. Yes, we all thought that was funny the first time we heard it – like when we were 12 – but please stop asking people that.

If we know we make an ass out of ourselves when we assume we know what someone else is thinking or how they’re feeling or what they want, why do we keep doing it? I guess I should have put assuming on last month’s list of prohibitions for this Roarin’ Twenties.

Here’s a recent example: I was asked by our volunteer coordinator, “Kevin, we want to show our volunteers how much they mean to us. What do you think about having a big breakfast for everyone?”

I replied, “They don’t want breakfast; they want a shirt so they feel like part of the team.” Undeterred, she matter-of-factly said, “We don’t have money for shirts, but we can buy everyone breakfast.”

The coordinator incorrectly assumed (as almost always happens) that everyone would feel rewarded and appreciated by eating a free breakfast. Even after being corrected, she still assumed she was correct.

News Flash: not everyone feels rewarded by the same token of appreciation.

A month later, the executive director asked me when I thought a good time to get the volunteers together for breakfast would be.

“Ummm… on the 12th of Never?”

Okay, that’s not what I said, although I wanted to. As the self-anointed appointed spokesman for the volunteers, I explained that while breakfast was a nice gesture, what they really wanted was a shirt like everyone else so they felt like part of the team.

Not surprisingly, I heard, “Yes, but the coordinator says we don’t have the money to buy shirts, but we all think a breakfast would be nice.”

Of course a breakfast would be nice… if you served it to me in bed.

But the last thing a sane person would want to do is to drive across town in this neck of the woods with the morning rush to eat a low-quality breakfast and then drive home. Or to lunch. Or to a happy hour – okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the drive home might be ill advised. What’s wrong with a shirt? Or a nametag, or a cubical sign, or a desk plaque… I’m not picky. But make it something that requires a little thought about what the individual or group would find meaningful.

The short points to my long story are these:

  1. If you want to express your appreciation for a job well done, genuinely express it as soon as you feel it. Not a pat on the head and a “good job” but an expression of sincere appreciation for a specific task done well or hard-won success.
  2. If you want to reward someone for exceptional performance or accomplishment – even with a small token of appreciation – do it publicly to add more meaning to making them feel like a valued member of the team. This assumes, of course, that they don’t mind being in the limelight, which leads to…
  3. If you want to give something meaningful to an employee you would hate to lose, ask him or her what that could be. A morning off maybe? A Friday afternoon off? Tickets to a sporting event? The movies? A play or ballet? Dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? The possibilities are almost endless! Just ask.

By the way, gift cards are nice, but if your employees are struggling for groceries or gas, that’s indicative of a different problem.

Other signs of assuming: “Would you mind…?” “Could you stay late to…?” “Can you come in this weekend to…?” “Did you remember to…?” “Did you fix the…” “Are you available to…?” “Do you have the information I need to…?” “Can you take care of this real quick?”  to all of which we assume the answers will be the ones we want to hear and not the reality of what’s going on inside the person’s head.

Those questions are asked so carelessly and thoughtlessly that it’s clear to the receiver that the person asking has no real idea or concern about the impact. There I go assuming again.

If any of this rings true in your organization, please put a stop to it, and if you see someone else making these kinds of morale-killing assumptions, please stop them.

After all, it makes someone look like an ass… and it’s not me.

How about it, leaders?

It’s up to you.

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.