Directions in Leadership — Turning the wheel or tapping the rudder

Directions in Leadership

I have interesting clients.

Not “interesting” as in some Sigmund Freud shrink, scratching his chin and saying “Hmmm, interesting,” as we lie on the couch droning on and on about the deeply-rooted events of our drama-filled childhood… more like “interesting” as opposed to dull, routine and boring.

As much as I hold myself out as an accomplished coach, consultant, and something of a leadership expert, I learn from these interesting clients each and every time I interact with them.

For example…

I was speaking with a client senior exec regarding his impact on the team. As all strong leaders tell me, he said, “Kevin, my job’s not hard, anyone could do it.” Not true, of course, and I said so. I reminded him that his job may seem easy to him, and may look easy to others, but is, in fact, the manifestation of myriad skills, behaviors and competencies.

I then added that he needed to set the right vision, develop the appropriate team, and influence others to pursue their own growth and development.

To which, he sighed and said, “I simply tap the rudders behind the ship.”

Wow. One short sentence conjures up a plethora of images in my head. Like this lonely dude in a rowboat, tied behind this massive ship, occasionally tapping the rudders to stay on course.

A bit funny, but also damned true.

Now certainly, there’s a ton of front-end work to do, processes to establish, people to hire, teams to build, cultures to develop, even hard and fast rules to create.

But in the end leading a team is about tapping the rudders. It’s about minor corrections or affirmations as they charge full-speed ahead, eyes on the horizon.

You aren’t the helmsman, turning the wheel to adjust for major course corrections. You aren’t the engineer, responding dutifully to “All ahead full!” on the intercom. As a senior exec, you aren’t even the executive officer on the bridge, coordinating regular activities.

You’re following, in tow, making small, nuance course corrections to a fast-steaming vessel.

Simply tapping the rudders.

Less “Steer course to 230 degrees” and more “Out there… thataway.” (unabashed Star Trek reference)

The 5 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership — and they’re non-negotiable, folks!

The 5 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Leaders, new and old, sometimes lose sight of the most fundamental tenets of leadership. Here’s a reminder…

I frequently tell executives that leadership – its concepts, theory, and core applications – haven’t changed in a millennium. Some our demographics may have changed, forcing us to use alternative applications of those concepts, but the basic concepts and theory remain.

So, why don’t we “just do it?” Sometimes we aren’t motivated; sometimes the “time” just doesn’t seem right. Maybe we simply forgot some of the basics… hence this article.

I use the following rules as a guide for newly promoted managers/leaders, as well as a constant reminder for every level of leadership – some good things to not forget.

So, here goes…

Law #1. Never delay or abrogate a decision that must be made. Make it and move on. You may have to immediately make another decision; this doesn’t mean your first one was wrong, merely that your second one had the benefit of additional knowledge.

When in the military, I worked for General Lawrence Boese, who would frequently tell me, “If 25% of your decisions aren’t wrong, you just aren’t making enough decisions.” And his favorite, “Shirt (that’s another article), there aren’t many “wrong” decisions; it’s just sometimes we have to make another decision right after the first one.”

Some truth to that…

Law #2. If you want something specific done, say so specifically, using clear, plain language. Employees, generally, have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair.

No hints, implications, or innuendos. Say what you want, and use English! Directness counts.

Law #3. If you always answer employee’s every question, you’ll forever be answering employees’ every question. Questions are teaching moments — don’t rob employees of the opportunity.

Sounds trite, and I don’t mean it to. If an employee is asking because they’re an unteachable moron, get rid of the employee. If they are a decent employee asking because they do not know, then teach them; they’ll know next time, and you’ll both be better for it.

Law #4. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good-management.

Employees – even top performers – need clear expectations. In fact, especially top performers. Give ‘em a target, provide resources and guidance, remove obstacles when necessary, then let them do their job. Check back later, since you still have management accountability.

Law #5. Employees need their managers to be leaders; they don’t need a shoulder, a buddy, a sympatico, or a commiserator.

If you want a friend, buy a dog.

We struggle with this. Everyone wants to be liked, and it always seems difficult to decline a beer after work, or something similar. I’m not advocating a monk-like existence, disallowing any personal contact with your folks; merely reminding you that they would like to have a friend, but they need a leader if they are to be successful.

You do want them to be successful, don’t you?

These laws are fairly intuitive, and certainly not rocket science… or brain surgery… or rocket surgery. They are simple management and leadership axioms that have passed the test of time.

Print these out, laminate, and put in your top desk drawer… and don’t forget them; your employees will not.

Recognize Recognition — And it shouldn’t be the exception!

Recognize Recognition

People have often heard me say, “I’m not trying to make happy employees.”

It’s true. Now, I’m plenty happy if they are happy, but their happiness isn’t the goal. Their engagement and satisfaction are. And though similar, they aren’t the same thing.

Happiness is fleeting, determined by current situations, and frankly, it’s flaky. People get happy and or sad/angry at the snap of a finger. Sometimes for good reason, other times just because.

Engagement and job satisfaction are developed over time, and generally not subject to hormonal, societal, or mood whims. In other words, kind of like luck over skill in golf; engagement and job satisfaction are more predictable and more dependable.

So, how then, do we get there? Well, there are certainly myriad inputs, including culture, values, development, etc. But instead of looking at these bigger picture, organizational glaciers trying to move the needle, let’s focus on what we as leaders can do.


Enter: Recognition.

Studies from HBR and others, show that recognition directly and positively impacts morale, engagement and job satisfaction. I only offer that in case you’re either a slug or playing intentionally obtuse to not recognize that obviosity.

Recognition matters. And it works. And it’s almost entirely free.

I’m looking for a down-side here and having difficulty finding one.

Recognition is easy and impactful. That’s the good news. It’s also short-lived. That’s the bad news. It just means you need to do it on a regular basis. Continuous, in fact. Monthly at the very least, for you detail-types. Schedule it if you must.

Now, for some “how-to” pointers. And we’re just talking about the recognition that can occur as a normal course of daily efforts. You’ll still need to consider things like bonuses, promotions, fancy titles, and the like. This isn’t that.

These are things you can do now. Today. Right after you finish reading this article. And though there may be 100 of these things to offer, we’re going to keep things simple here (I like simple). I’ll offer just three.

  1. Personal communications. Handwritten notes, in-person visits and/or phone calls. Zoom is so over-used in some organizations as to be impersonal, so don’t include that (unless it’s a rarity in your house).

Write a note (yes, using a pen and paper), walk down the hall or pick up the phone.

And begin these conversations or notes with “I wanted to personally thank you.” Jobs well done mostly benefit the larger organization; showing personal gratitude shows the impact their efforts had on you.

  1. Public gratitude. Speaking of gratitude… instead of staff meeting eye-rollers like “I wanted to say good job to the Accounting team…,” use something like “I’d like to take a moment to offer a warm ‘thanks’ to Alyssa and her folks – they rocked it with last month’s closing!”

Personal leadership gratitude… it matters. Subtle difference, but a difference, nonetheless.

  1. Send it down, bump it up! I created a video for this if you’d prefer to watch over reading (don’t worry, it’s less than 3 minutes).

This recognition technique is fast and far-reaching.

You receive an email from someone that works for you. They let you know they finished something, completed a project, or maybe achieved a particular result. Instead of simply responding with “thanks,” you send it down and bump it up!

You send it down by responding to that email with a 2-3 sentence uniquely worded “thank you” (gratitude again), copying all those on the team or contributing to that success.

Then you bump it up, by putting your boss on the cc: line (not bcc). Everyone gets to see that (a) you thanked them and (b) you also showed your boss what they did.

Then your boss, after receiving the email, must send it down with relevant gratitude, and make the decision whether to bump it up to her boss.

Rinse and repeat.

Recognition isn’t difficult, time-consuming, or costly. In fact, there’s no good reason we don’t do it all the time.

So, do it all the time.

Performance Management in Crazy Times — 1-on-1s, forms and Layoffs

Performance Management in Crazy Times

Effectively managing performance today is a bear. It’s tough. And can feel thankless… sometimes even pointless.

It’s also one of the most important things we do as senior managers – setting, and managing to, performance expectations.

Why, then, do we anguish about it so?

The problem, of course, is we frequently confuse performance reviews with performance management. We make the appraisal process so onerous that no one wants to do anything but the appraisals… forgetting, of course, why we do those troublesome things in the first place.

It’s because we don’t take ownership of the process. It’s not the form we use, the rating scale identified, nor the percentage of pay increase associated with various rankings. It’s that we just don’t see the process as significant in our pursuit for business success.

It is, however, as necessary as breathing for an organization’s success, so let’s stop complicating it unnecessarily. It’s actually pretty damned simple.

In that vein, I’m not going to offer some academic treatise BS here; I’m just going to share what I believe are the components of applying successful performance management. Here goes:

There are three key components to this stuff: Communication—Feedback–Assessment.

Communications are the foundation. Negotiating, then setting, clear expectations is where it all starts. Frequent follow-up conversations are essential, as is some method of tracking so all can keep an eye on progress. Your regularly scheduled 1:1 conversations are a big part here.

You are having regularly scheduled (weekly preferable, no less than monthly) 1:1 discussions, aren’t you?

Feedback is essential for calibration. This includes briefs and debriefs of events, like key meetings, project completions, necessary interactions, obvious conflicts, etc. This event feedback is some of the most valuable fodder for learning – don’t miss out.

I had a board chair once tell me his role was to simply “tap the rudders” behind the ship. This is what feedback does. It allows for target assessment, recognition of successes and opportunities, and allows us to use “tracer rounds” to focus our efforts.

Assessment occurs as an amalgam of expectations, tracking and feedback, Here we determine “good,” or “needs improvement;” “on target,” or “3 inches to the left;” “success” or “do-over.” It must be clear that assessments use clear expectations as the yardstick, and that well-intentioned failures are a path to success, not a clear shot to termination.

But Kevin, what about our corporate Performance Review form? Where does that fit in? Well, frankly, it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t need to. All that form should be used for is to memorialize the ongoing communication—feedback—assessment that occurred throughout the year (quarter, month, whatever).

Nothing new. No surprises.

Realize that the goal here is not a form… it’s managing/improving performance. Oh, yeah… we sometimes get so lost in the process, that we forget the real purpose. To manage and improve performance.

Let’s not lose sight of that objective.

And as presented in a recent AMA on “Should Performance Reviews be used for Layoffs?” – No, that performance review should not be the sole determinant for a layoff, nor should they be “shifted” in focus or substance at the end of a review period.

Performance management is essential for growth, improvement, and success. Performance reviews are a repository; a memorialization of ongoing performance management. Know the difference.

Performance matters. We all know this intuitively, yet we wrestle with the best way to manage that performance in our workplace. Own the process, decide that it’s about success, not perfection, and schedule the conversations.

Effective Feedback in Today’s Crazy Times

Effective Feedback

Feedback’s not getting easier, just a damned sight more essential.

Tom Peters once described a really unique method of communicating at a client company… he said they talked to each other. Now this was some years ago, so talking may have morphed into various forms today (email, text, etc.), but the concept is still true—personal communications is a necessity and will be crucial for leadership success in the future.

This is where you slap your head, à la Homer Simpson, with a resounding D’oh!

Our biggest challenge with feedback is usually the definition: it doesn’t mean “talking to someone,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “telling someone what you think.” Both of those may to the untrained observer, look like feedback. Neither actually is.

And it’s not simple criticism, either. See my AMA video for a discussion on this.

Let’s cut to the chase:

Feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.

Do I need to repeat that?? If you aren’t trying to help someone grow and/or improve, it isn’t feedback. It may be something else (and likely not something good), but feedback?


Feedback neither requested nor expected is for the sender, not the receiver. Telling me that I’m fat and ugly (a bald-faced lie, by the way) does nothing to help me improve, which should be the cornerstone of any feedback effort.

And saying “well, it’s true” is no defense. Too many people wield the “truth” like some invisible sword and shield. It’s not. And in feedback, it must be balanced with the overarching need to help. So, how do we do that?

Make it personal. Feedback needs to be directed to someone specifically to be relevant. All-hands communications are so frequently ignored, they’ve lost all effectiveness for real feedback. Though face-to-face is best, video works well also, as can telephone or emails, or even text (decidedly least effective) directed to a specific individual, with specifics on the feedback topic.

And never forget; we need to communicate in a manner that can be best received by the other person. Decide in advance whether you’re trying to win, or to change behavior. Your communications—style, method, frequency—will then drive how you execute that feedback.

Be timely. Note, I didn’t say immediate. If you are so fired up right now because someone made such an egregious error that you would like to strangle them, “timely” means waiting until you can give feedback in a way that can be best received by that same person (see above). Preferably sans strangulation.

Being timely also means delivering feedback when its relevance can be understood and acted upon if necessary. This usually (barring the notable “strangulation exception” mentioned earlier) means as soon as practical to the event, behavior, or action driving the feedback subject.

Feedback must be two-way. Here’s the formula: The more we share relevant parts of ourselves—what we like, don’t like, expect, demand—the more others understand and trust us. The more they trust us, the more they share, and the more we share together, the higher the overall level of trust between us.

Trust is the very currency of leadership; we simply cannot succeed without it This is one of the few things that will not change in future years. What may evolve, however, is the manner in which trust is created, built, and fostered.

We must accept—insist on—regular feedback from those we lead. Find a way that works; you can always start with getting good at providing feedback yourself, and consistently asking for same. Some may still be hesitant, and you’ll need some help. 360s are a great tool for this. My Start-Stop-Continue worksheet can sometimes lower the resistance.

Feedback—helpful, relevant, and regular—will be essential to building trust today, tomorrow and beyond, and trust is essential to leadership. Without trust, there can be no discretionary effort; without discretionary effort, we only get what we pay for. Is that really what we want?

I vote no.

Team-Based Leader Development: Why together is better…

Team-Based Leader Development

Educating executives, managers, supervisors and other leaders remains a major concern for companies eager to keep their organizations afloat or even thriving in a challenging economic environment. Frankly, the limiting factor for most organizations continues to be leadership.

Leader development is not a new concept.  It continues, however, to be practiced in ways that – at best – do little to develop successful leaders and – at worst – damage functional relationships by allowing learning to exist in silos and independent “vacuums.”

The problem is not content. Adequate topical content is a dime-a-dozen and represents time-tested applications and concepts that have not changed much in a couple of millennia. Any of several firms create and publish reasonably valid content.

The principal challenge around effective development is relevancy. The content mentioned above is generic and must be made relevant for a specific functional or hierarchical group, within a specific organization. Then, when properly facilitated, we can at least hope to successfully develop a group of leaders.

The biggest issue, though, in effectively developing a group, team, gaggle, or flock of leaders is making sure they all learn the same things, the same way, and in the same context. Further, they should be able to test relevant applications and concepts together, for best learning and application.

Enter Team-Based Leader Development.

Now, I’m not speaking of team-building, per se, nor am I talking about campfires, challenge/ropes courses, falling-backward trust exercises, or other hardly-effective methods of development.

Those have value in team-bonding, but not real team development. And no, bonding and development are not the same things… in fact, it’s not actually a team just because you call it a team. See our article on The First rule of the Leadership Team.

I’m simply talking about developing a team or group of leaders at the same time, together. At our firm, we see more and more organizations wanting – needing – content specific for their groups; you just can’t get there when sending people out to some public session or seminar trying to be all things to all people.

You need your leaders developed together, learning applications and concepts relevant to your organization. By using team-based leader development, all leaders of a particular level or function learn these things at the same time, in the same room, using each other as learning tools.

The advantages of this approach should be obvious, and include demonstrated successes in:

  1. Improving communication flow within the team and out to the organization. This can occur naturally, and in a less stressful, facilitated environment. Conversations like this…
  • …benefit the organization, by providing calm discussions among leaders of similar hierarchical or functional levels, about just about anything important occurring in the organization today, and
  • …benefit the specific leaders involved, as they not only are discussing new learnings and applications, but they now have the opportunity to discuss things not normally discussed.

For example, without a safer venue, how many mid or senior-level managers would ask a peer “Hey, John, what’s the best way for me to resolve a conflict in my department?”  Or “Say, Susan, I’m having some issues in driving empowerment to my hourly employees – any suggestions?”

I’m guessing those conversations/questions, in the midst of our brutally hectic workdays, would be damned rare.

  1. Fostering mutual accountability for behaviors and results. One of the biggest advantages in having all these leaders in one location discussing the same things is that accountabilities can become institutionalized. It’s one thing to make a casual mention in the hallway; another thing altogether to commit to a group today, then speak with them a month or so later about your progress.

Also, this close-in work environment creates team ground rules that foster cohesion; if we agree in a group that behind-the-back caucusing is not something we’ll do, then having those back-stabbing conversations later just doesn’t feel right. Further, open communications in a facilitated setting inevitably translate to more open conversations in the open workplace.

  1. Faster assimilation, shared accountabilities, and increased understanding. This is the financial “why?” answered. Homogeneous participants learn faster, and the learning is more relevant. Therefore, an organization’s return on those development dollars is quicker, and the skills are more appropriate for the organization’s needs.

Understanding is accelerated; participants can discuss/explain with each other on various points and concepts, making sure that the meaning is the same for all, and that more realize how they can actually be used for leader success.

Participants in team-based development are able to identify their primary strengths quicker, and better understand how building on those contributes to higher levels of personal satisfaction and team success.

In short, all win. And the organization is better for it, all the time.

For additional insight, see the incredibly old-but-still-relevant Houston Business Journal’s feature article, Many companies now leaning toward team-oriented training.

(If link above doesn’t work, you can download pdf version at

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