Dinosaur Tails and Backpacks — Check Your Six

Warning:  I intend to mix a bunch of metaphors in this article. If you’re an English teacher or just a self-appointed internet grammar snob, you may want to pass on by.

Nothing to see here.

These are not the metaphors you’re looking for… (waving my hand and using my best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice)

A senior executive client of mine is fond of saying he sometimes forgets that, due to his position, he sometimes swings a dinosaur tail behind him, using a T-Rex as an analogy.

In other words, he can, at times, overlook the short- and long-term impacts of his decision-making; he may be able to change directions on a dime, but can those around him – that he impacts both directly and indirectly – make that shift just as quickly and easily?

Experience tells him (and me) that the answer is “no.”

That big ol’ tail swings without even thinking, knocking crap all over the place and causing all sorts of commotion amongst those being swatted. The lesson here, of course, is to remember that our decisions and influence – our impact as leaders – extends well beyond the immediate intent.

People and processes are affected all up and down the organizational food chain. That dinosaur tail cuts a big-assed swath of real estate every time it swishes one way or the other.

So what to do? How do we manage this appendage wreaking havoc in our wake? Well, curiously enough, I have a suggestion or two. Or three. Actually, a couple of questions and suggestions. They go hand in hand…

Realize you have a tail. That’s right, young tadpole, you have a tail. You may not have it forever, but you do today – be aware it exists.

Don’t be like the traveling morons who have their backpack strapped on while maneuvering down an airplane’s aisle, forever whipping around to check an overhead bin for space or to chat with their fellow moron, all the while forgetting they have a 10-12 inch extension on their back that occupies… well, an additional 10-12 inches.

I’ve been hit in the head, spilled drinks, whopped in the face, etc. because someone didn’t even realize they had a tail in the first place.

You, too, should realize that appendage is present, and can do real damage if not considered.

Ask yourself — should you be wagging your tail at all? In other words, if your dinosaur tail has the capacity to cause such carnage, are most decisions and actions better left to those closer to the action?

Maybe left to those with significantly smaller tails?

Ask yourself that very question every time you feel the need to swish that reptilian extension around like a kid’s Skip-it apparatus. (Google that if you’re scratching your head…)

And finally, assuming you simply must swing that dinosaur tail (and adding one more mixed metaphor)…

Check your six. I was in the U.S. Air Force for a lot of years but was not a pilot. Ask any pilot and they’ll tell you unequivocally that there are only two types in the Air Force: Pilots, and those who wish they were pilots.

Now I won’t disparage my aircrew amigos by bursting their bubble, but I will say that as pilots, they had cooler lingo than we did as mere surface-dwellers.

Check your six was one of those cool terms used by pilots, originally referring to the need to visually identify an enemy aircraft lining up behind you in your blind spot (your “6 o’clock position”).

It’s use has since expanded to mean keep an eye on your backside so bad things don’t happen, and to check your mirrors (real or figurative) before making a major move.

So, for our use here, check your six means take a look around you before making those big, bold, often-boneheaded moves that create a buttload of unintended consequences. Use some of that situational awareness we hear about.

Sort of a look before you leap, but for the benefit of others.

As a leader, particularly a senior leader, your decisions, influence and directions have an impact. We hope that impact is always good and positive.

Sometimes, however, that impact can swing like a dinosaur tail, causing unintended consequences in the damndest, unexpected places.

Be aware of your backpack, don’t wag your tail without forethought, and check your six.

The aircraft image above is a print, The Hunter Becomes the Hunted, by William S. Phillips. B-17s in WWII are headed to Berlin, with Luftwaffe F-190s attacking, while U.S. P-47 Mustangs — the Wolf Pack led by Col. Herb Zemke – are on their 6 o’clock position. A signed and numbered print proudly hangs above my credenza.

10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART DEUX

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.
— Aristotle

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part series

It’s interesting… this 2-part series has just ten client lessons learned from 2021. I could double that number with little effort. Helping and watching clients grow, learn and succeed creates an incredible learning environment for me.

In Part 1, I remarked on the following lessons learned:
1. Culture is everything.
2. Intellect, purpose, and leadership are key.
3. Metrics without a system are meaningless.
4. High functioning teams disagree.
5. Low-hanging fruit creates early wins; allow grace with future misses and missteps.

Part two has another five lessons, all picked up as I work with, observe and assist clients. These are a bit more personal, and deal with our actionable behaviors.

Some are simple lessons that just needed reminding, others are breakthrough processes, at least for that particular executive or team. Let’s get started…

6. Before any reaction from a leader, always ask “to what end?” Zig Ziglar once wrote, “Take the high road – there’s a lot less traffic.” Often we get smack dab in the middle of a contentious situation, and simply forget why we’re there in the first place.

Our goal in any situation, especially when emotions are starting to become a key part of every conversation, should be to attain the best available result (note I did not say simply “best result) while maintaining our credibility, the mutual respect of all parties and the longer-term relationship. Let’s unpack this a bit…

“The world is watching,” a phrase first used as part of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s, is instructive here. People are watching how we deal with the totality of the situation. It’s not enough to be right; those around us keeping an eyeball on our actions also want us to do right.

Why fire someone when you can let them resign? (There are exceptions to this, but few)

Do I really need that apology?

Am I forcing a decision that doesn’t need forcing?

Do I want to win, or do I want to change someone’s behavior? (Ask yourself this one a lot)

To what end? is a great question to ask as you feel yourself being sucked into the quagmire of tit-for-tat and one-upmanship.

Don’t go there. Stay on the high road. Keep your leadership behavior elevated and maintain your presence and credibility. You can actually win big by allowing someone else to enjoy a small victory of their own.

7. Poor communication can defeat effective leadership. Announcements, follow-ups, rules changes. Messaging is one of the more important parts of leadership, particularly at the senior-team level. It does us no good to do great things and then screw it up with the delivery.

In messaging to teams, large and small, plan, prepare and rehearse. Don’t try to use a simple message to also “remind everyone to sign up for…” or other such nonsense. Keep focused on the issue; short, direct and positive.

Put on your cynic hat and ask yourself how someone could object to the message or messaging and be prepared to adequately address those objections.

We frequently manage to irritate people with little effort on our part. Let’s not add insult to injury by irritating them when making an otherwise-positive announcement.

8. If you are forever saying “I don’t have time,” you’re likely in over your head. The best leaders have time. Yes, you read that right – you have the time, particularly for those employees who need you. If not, you’re in the wrong line of work.

When an employee sticks their head in your office and says, “I know you’re busy, but do you have a minute?” They are actually telling you that you seem too busy for them, meaning their interruption was all that much more difficult (I’m not talking about jaw-jackin’ John who drops in several times each day just to waste time – that’s for another article on another day).

One of the key behaviors of those demonstrating real executive presence is the appearance that they have ample time to invest whenever necessary. Those with presence don’t seem to be spastic and harried all day, a slave to both their calendar and current raging fires.

They seem calm and in control and are masters of their time. They seldom, if ever, offer “I don’t have the time” as an excuse, nor do they appear too busy to have that discussion.

Did I mention they seem clearly in control?

9. If you’re planning to grow, but not building your bench, you’re planning to fail. Most fast-growth efforts become stymied from lack of leadership, not resources.

  Now, I realize my bias in this conversation, but hear me out. Organizations looking at growth, particularly significant growth, are all awash in planning and such. Flip-chart-slinging-strategy sessions with 10-12 company execs and influencers, good chow (pre-apocalypse, anyway) and maybe even drinks at dinner.

The plans… they are a-flyin’.

Capital dollars resourced? Check.

Recruitment plan? Check.

Facility preparations? Check.

Leadership bench availability? Nah, we’ll wing it.

Wait… what??

If you believe your plans – those 3-ring binders represented by endless slide decks – why the hell aren’t you planning for your growing leadership needs? Think you’ll just wish hard, rub the lamp, click your heels together and boom! Leaders everywhere, all ready to get to work and manage your newfound, hard-fought growth?

News flash, Einstein. Not gonna happen.

Plan for growth by building your bench. If we develop existing and potential leaders for potential growth, there’s no downside. Either we need them and promote them, or we have better trained leaders in existing roles.

Hard to see a downside here. Planning includes leadership planning.

10. Grace and accountability can coexist. You may have heard before, but my most successful clients continue to reinforce the concept.

This has turned in to my mantra of sorts.

This whole bit about how holding others (and ourselves) accountable is mean-spirited or somehow offensive needs to go the way of the $1 cup o’joe. It just ain’t so. At least, it doesn’t have to be so.

This is the crux of the matter. Holding ourselves accountable isn’t narcissistic, it’s just pulling our weight.

Expecting accountability from others isn’t aggressive or forward, it’s compassionate, caring and kind. It’s knowing that we all do better when we expect the best from everyone.

Demonstrable empathy is a true example of successful leadership.

Empathy, at its core, is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling; taking it further, empathy includes caring for other people and having a real desire to help them. And one of the best ways to pull that off in leadership is to be clear with expectations, vicious about providing resources and support, then creating the environment where we hold each other accountable for achieving what we set out to do.

Our ultimate goal is to help each other – to steal from Army recruiting – Be all we can be. Be the best we can be.

For a leader, it means bringing kindness, empathy, and respect; It means using those as levers to help others succeed, to grow and Improve.

Grace means courteous good will. Sometimes even unmerited assistance.

Accountability means personal ownership of a specific expectation or result.

Grace and accountability can coexist.

10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART 1

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.

          — Aristotle

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part series

I love the Aristotle quote. There’s plenty of successful leaders and organizations that “know,” and they do well with that knowledge. The next level folks, they understand, and they teach that knowledge to others, sometimes even unknowingly.

I’m a lifelong student of leadership. I live it, breathe it, study it. I coach executives in it, and advise senior-most teams on its concepts, principles, and values.

Yet I learn – from those very people paying me for counsel. No, this isn’t a consultant-stealing-my-watch-to-tell-me-the-time moment; it’s how we all get better. We study, learn, execute, examine, and adjust – adapting to changing environments and results.

And I learn a ton from our clients. Watching them execute, adjust, and execute again. Testing, reinforcing, molding behaviors to fit their organization’s needs. It’s fun to watch. So, I’ve decided to share my learnings; after all, I learned them from someone else, it only seems fair to pass them on.

My Top 10 Lessons Learned from Clients, circa 2021:

1. Culture is everything. Let me say that again – culture is everything. With a successful, intentional culture, you can overcome a talent shortage, resource constraints, even an occasional supply chain breakdown.

We cannot, however, progress past an ineffective culture. Organizations succeeding (not simply surviving) through our recent apocalypse didn’t do so simply because their CEO was smarter than the others, or because their credit line held up.

Culture supports leadership and organizations when tangible resources cannot. People’s desires to succeed, based on their support of the organization’s direction and demonstrable principles, is what separates the surviving from the thriving. Get it right.

2. Intellect, purpose, and leadership are key. In senior roles, intellect, purpose, and leadership beat out subject matter expertise hands down. Sure, rockstar functional expertise coupled with these components would be fantastic; but frankly, that functional mastery is way down the list for success.

Not to say we don’t want subject matter expertise – only that, when canvassing candidates for those roles, don’t start with specific knowledge. Start first by identifying those with the intellect (business acumen, learning ability), purpose (desire to succeed, proven processes), and leadership (influencing, collaborating, driven).

3. Metrics without a system are meaningless. Metrics must be built on a system to be truly successful. A system is a repeatable process with predictable results.

Windfalls may make bonus time fun, but do not showcase leadership success. The occasional windfall is a pleasure for all to enjoy, to be sure. But a reliance on windfalls is like buying lottery tickets as a retirement plan.

If a manager is producing solid metrics but is unable to describe how they did it or equally unable to explain how those metrics will be repeated, they aren’t leading, they’re simply along for the ride. A fun ride, to be sure, but they aren’t leading. Good leadership takes advantage of good luck – it doesn’t require it to succeed.

4. High functioning teams disagree. A lot. Difficult discussions are essential for team success. Remember, when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is better served.

One of the most high-functioning leadership teams I’ve worked with didn’t necessarily start out that way. It wasn’t until they could trust each other enough to safely disagree – frequently if necessary and with strong passion and conviction – that they really began to gel.

This same team asked for 360 surveys on the entire team, not uncommon in my world. Then they wanted to share their results with each other; again, not entirely uncommon.

Finally, and this is the uncommon part, I facilitated a session with the team to share openly in groups how they could help each other build and improve on the strengths and opportunities identified in each other’s 360 survey. Courage, transparency, vulnerability. A big deal.

5. Low-hanging fruit creates early wins; allow grace with future misses and missteps. Frequently, we replace a key incumbent with someone who has all the necessary skills that the predecessor lacked. Maybe the former exec was disorganized and a slow decision-maker; we fill that position with a hyper-organized high-speed decision-maker, and it immediately makes everyone say “oooh,” and “aaah.”

Followed by “Damned, we’re smart. We put the right person in the right job!”

Then, reality hits. The honeymoon wraps up, and the new exec faces some challenges that maybe they weren’t prepared for. Maybe they make a bad decision or two. It’s easy to say, “I’m not sure we put the right person in that job.” In fact, however, mistakes will be made, some things will get screwed up, missteps will occur, judgments will be questioned.

Know this. Realize going in that Mr/Ms NewExec will do some great things initially (hopefully), but eventually will become part of a functioning reality where big things happen and mistakes are made; we accept both and move on. Accolades for wins, grace for losses. Two heads of the same coin.

Stay tuned for 10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART 2

The Workplace of the Future

The Workplace of the Future

Auntie Em, Uncle Henry…you’re not in Kansas anymore!

The Workplace of the FutureComing out of the chaos of the last 18 months, I’ve noticed that the people I work with have changed somehow. They sound the same and look pretty much the same, but they seem different. Kinda like Dorothy’s friends in the Land of Oz.

Has anyone else noticed it?

No, really. In the whirlwind that took us from Spring 2020 to Fall 2021, it feels like they changed while we were apart. Or was it me who changed?

What’s really changed is the workplace. While the difference may not as drastic as it was between Kansas and Oz, it may feel like that in some companies. Change is inevitable, yes, but poorly led and managed change on such a large scale can be the beginning of the end for previously well-led organizations.

The most obvious change is whether people are still working entirely at home, full-time at the office (if there’s an office left), or a hybrid of the two. Whatever the new work policies are, and how we came to the decisions about them, there’s a good chance we’ve alienated a fair portion of our workforce. So, what does the workplace of the future look like?

Lots of people are anxious about getting back out there after such a long time in some state of isolation. Just The Workplace of the Futuregetting back into an office with co-workers in close proximity and a commute that suddenly feels awkward can be intimidating, but having to sit in a meeting wondering who others have recently been exposed to can be downright paralyzing to some. Not to mention trying to avoid controversial topics in casual conversations in the breakroom.

That doesn’t bode well as we approach the end of another year and are trying to play catch-up to reach our 2021 goals.

So how do we as leaders decide what our future workplace is going to look like and how we’re going to ensure our teams can meet expectations? The first thing we have to remember is that nowhere in our organizations, departments, sections or teams does one size fit all. Where they work is different, what they do is different, and what we expect of them is different.

  • Start by focusing on what kinds of interactions between our workforce is critical to the success of the team (however we define it). Creativity depends on a different kind of interaction than routine information exchange. Some departments can get by mostly using phones and computers (HR and accounting come to mind) requiring much less face-to-face time in the office.
  • If it doesn’t matter what time of day (or night) a person’s work gets done as long as it meets expectations and is completed on time, why should we care when or where it gets done? Just one consideration as you decide who needs to be on-site daily.
  • Choice is important… within limits of course. The days of believing that everyone is more productive at the office than at home are long past. Does that mean each employee gets to decide where they’re going to work and on what days? The best answer I can give is maybe. It’s at least worth having the conversation.
    Employees’ sentiments change over time, so what they wanted in 2020 might not be the same at the end of 2021. What won’t work is re-establishing the old schedule with strict daily attendance policies.
  • Just be transparent in the decision making. Regularly listen to others to generate ideas and gain a higher level of buy-in.
  • We’ve gotten used to virtual meetings; do we have to go back to sitting around the conference room table?The Workplace of the Future If we’re still measuring a meeting’s success by who attends rather that what get accomplished, we’re still doing it wrong. And if we haven’t figured out how to have hybrid meetings by now, the IT team isn’t doing their job.
  • Speaking of meetings, what about reacting to the boss’s ever-changing meeting schedule? I would argue if that kind of flexibility is required, it’s easier to adjust virtually than physically, especially in the case of geographically separated offices.
  • Finally, we have to be willing to make different decisions when new information comes to light. I wasn’t alone in thinking – initially anyway – we were returning to some semblance of normalcy earlier this summer. My kids are mostly grown, so I didn’t consider the ramifications of a parent having to stay home with a quarantined school-age child – or two back-to-back.
    If we can let people work from home when their kids are sick, what’s keeping us from letting them work from home when their kids are healthy?

One last thought: talk to each other! No one in our generation of leaders has faced a global disruption in the workplace that we have – and are still having. You are not the only one having to make hard decisions about what the new normal will look like; others in your C-level and executive leadership circle are facing the same kinds of tough choices. Ask others what’s working for them and share what’s working for you. Together we can build a better workplace for the future.

There’s no clicking of heels and wishing things would go back to the way they were. It doesn’t have to be as crazy The Workplace of the Futureas the Land of Oz, but we’re never going back to Kansas again.

Are You Micro-Managing??

By D. Kevin Berchelmann

This is an interesting and pertinent topic to me, as many of my clients – some aware, some not – suffer fromAre you managing… or micro-managing?? the micro-managing malady. Are you micro-managing??

It’s been my experience that micro-managers do so from perceived need. At least in their minds, they feel they have a need for acute attention to detail in one or more functions, or with one or more (or all) members of their staffs.

From my experience, the underlying reasons driving this perceived need come from

  • real or perceived lack of competency of employee(s)
  • real or perceived lack of trust, and/or
  • an overdeveloped personal ego/sense of self-worth.

Realize that most people want to achieve the same results with fewer efforts, and micro-managing takes more effort, not less.  The dangers to me are straightforward: in times of economic scrutiny, we need employees to be thinking more, not less.

So, how can we tell if we’ve crossed that line into micro-managing? What do we look for, and what can we do?  Some indicators (and suggestions):

  1. You frequently get questions about problems without recommended solutions. Employees–even really good ones–tire of doing the legwork for a micro-manager, so will simply ask questions instead of problem-solving. “What do you want me to do?” is a typical question, and they are essentially absolving themselves of all ownership and accountability. You decide, you own. They screw it up, you own it.
  2. You regularly ask successful employees for status updates. Stop it. They didn’t get there by being an idiot, and you frustrating them isn’t helping. Set priorities and deadlines, and then allow employees room to do as you asked. Status updates, particularly those without major project milestones, are simply a display of distrust.
  3. Are you managing… or micro-managing??You’re questioning others’ good decisions. Usually because you would have “done it differently,” or are uncomfortable you weren’t involved in the decision. How about just saying “Good work, thanks…?” Learn to shut up; diarrhea of the mouth is a career limiter anyway…

Eradicating micro-managing is the responsibility of both parties–the staffer being micro-managed, and the manager “doing” the micro-managing.

Size matters… doesn’t it? — Are bigger leaders better?

Some CEOs make a lot of money. Their Vice Presidents don’t usually make as much, and the directors, managers, and other leadership positions still further down the organizational food-chain make even less.

I know, I know… you’re thinking “Well duh, Kevin; did you come up with that ‘blinding flash of the obvious’ on your own, or did you have help?”

My question here isn’t about the dinero, per se. And it’s not about relative value among leaders. No, my question is about the absolute value of leadership. Is the absolute value of a senior leader greater than that of a less senior leader to those s/he leads?

I think not. In fact, not just no, but hell no.

Like many of you, I travel frequently, and I thought about this question when I boarded a puddle-jumper for the 51 minute flight from Houston to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It occurred to me then, that the pilot of this 24-passenger prop-job likely made considerably less money than the pilot of the 737 I’m on right now.

But if he screws up, I’m just as dead as if he had made twice the money.

In other words, to the recipient of the leadership behavior, it doesn’t matter that some other leader may make more money, have a bigger office, or have a fancier title.  In our selfish, singular worlds, what matters is how that leader leads… to me. Right now.

Think about it…

  • All leaders must create and leverage relationships to succeed, and
  • All leaders are responsible for developing employees so they can support and succeed at their vision, and
  • All leaders personally and directly affect the total career and employment environment of those they lead.

Just like those pilots, who regardless of the size of their aircraft or wallet, personally and directly affect my safety as a passenger.

In other words, the impact you have on the people you lead, as individual people, doesn’t increase/decrease based on the scope, title or compensation. Or even your place on an org chart.

So, then, if I were to continue my unsavory double entendre approach to this article – all the while you keeping your mind out of the gutter – I might say that it’s not the size of the leader that matters, but what the leader does with that size that really counts.

Yes, I might say that…

(a related article on being courageous as a leader, can be seen on my blog, The Brazen Leader.)

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