“Stupid should hurt…”

I was recently involved (as a participant) in a strategic planning event; the facilitator, Alan Pue, was discussing many of the ways that planning — and its subsequent implementation — can go wrong.

In part of that commentary, he mentioned as an example a firm’s inability to adapt to a necessary change in the market, and how that inability adversely affected their performance. Alan wasn’t sympathetic to their plight, nor even empathetic. In fact, he made it clear that the problem was their own doing, and the resultant pain was of their own creation. They did it to themselves, have no one else to blame, and these lessons — though valuable — can be painful.

I agree.

When we act so dumb in business that we can’t get out of our own way, the resultant pain is our own doing. Sort of like touching a hot stove, we hopefully learn that we shouldn’t do that again.

Stupid should hurt.

What Does Leadership Feel Like?

Probably too many attempts have been made to define leadership.

Everyone seems to have their own favorite definition. More often than not, it comes down to “I know it when I see it.”

So instead of struggling to identify good leadership behaviors, try looking at the leaders you’ve known through a different lens. Ask yourself, “What did their leadership feel like?”

We follow leaders because they make us want to, not because we have to.

It’s an emotional decision to choose to do more than we have to. Good leaders get our discretionary effort because we appreciate how they make us feel – about them, about ourselves and about the organization.

Over the course of my Defense Department career, I had the privilege of working for and with a number of great leaders…and some not so great ones. There were as many different styles as there were leaders. I tried to emulate the good ones; the bad ones…well, let’s just say not everyone served as a good example.

I’ve got the stick for a minute

My favorite leaders aren’t necessarily charismatic or outgoing; they’re not all what you would call mighty warriors; some can’t (and never could) hold their own at the club on Friday nights.

But they all have one thing in common: they have a certain presence about them – leadership presence – that makes me like being around them.

Here are my three favorite traits that I think contribute the most to their leadership presence:

They have integrity. They don’t just do the right things when no one’s watching. They also have integrity you can feel, knowing in your heart that they’re going to do what they say – or own up to it when they can’t. No false promises and no excuses. Because of that, I trust them.

They’re genuine. They’re comfortable with who they are, and there’s no pretense in their behavior. Their compassion is real. That doesn’t mean they’re cuddly – far from it – but I’m certain of what they stand for and what they care about. They don’t have a need to be seen as more than they really are, and they don’t hide behind a veneer.

They’re present. They make me feel like what we’re discussing is important to them. They don’t act distracted by what else they could be doing, and they’re not casting glances at their computer screen or caller ID. It’s very calming, even if it is only for the few minutes I’m with them.

How do you make your followers feel? Look for the common traits in your favorite leaders and decide where you could improve your leadership presence.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

Who’s Got Your Six?

F-16 Fighting Falcon Thunderbirds with the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron perform aerial maneuvers Aug. 3, 2014, during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Stan Parker)

 

As a leader in your organization, who’s got your back? Are the people you work with watching out for you, or do you find yourself covering your six to keep from being stabbed in the back?

I’m a huge supporter of the new “Got Your Six” campaign to unite nonprofit, Hollywood, and government partners to support our veterans. The commercials touch my heart when they explain how “got your six” means we’ve got our veterans’ backs as they transition from military service to civilian life.

They also remind me of lessons I learned in pilot training about how to keep enemy pilots from maneuvering to my ultimate position of vulnerability: my six o’clock position – the blind spot directly behind me where I wouldn’t recognize I was about to be killed. Translated into corporate language: where someone is about to make us look stupid or incompetent without us realizing it.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

“Covering your six” is what pilots have wingmen for. Wingmen fly behind and above (or below) their lead to make sure no one sneaks up on them. Pretty easy analogy to apply to the corporate world, but who’s really going to watch your back in the dog-eat-dog of office politics?

Your followers, that’s who. The ones who trust you and know you have their backs as well.

When a leader is intentional about creating an environment of trust and cooperation in the office, coworkers watch out for each because they want the organization to succeed. It’s much more difficult to blindside an entire group of people watching out for each other than it is an individual outside the circle of trust.

You build that environment of trust by having non-negotiable integrity and demonstrating you both care more about your employees than you do yourself (compassion), and you can and will use their efforts for the good of the organization (competence).

You instill that trust only if your actions are consistent with your words. If you’re one who talks about others behind their backs, you can assume you’re also being talked about. If there is even a hint that you might sacrifice one of your people for your benefit, you’re headed for a Julius Caesar ending.

Now, I’m not Pollyannaish, and I’ve certainly worked in places where the motto was something like “it’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” Competition can be fierce, and insecure or power-hungry people backstab from a variety of motivations.

But you can’t focus on helping your employees achieve great things if you’re always sitting in the corner with your back to the wall. You’ve got to be out there doing your best for them, trusting them the way they trust you. That’s the leader’s role, and while it’s vulnerable, it doesn’t have to be unsafe.

So who’s got your six? It’s up to you.

You have the stick.

It Is What It Is

 –But what is it?

 I looked up from my desk the other day and noticed (again) a retirement present from a good friend and co-worker that says, “It is what it is.” Too often, I hear that phrase uttered in a tone of voice that conveys resignation to an unpleasant situation or acceptance of defeat. It doesn’t have to be.

As leaders, a key to success is in understanding the last part of the sentence:  “…what it is.”  It might be something we have control over, something we can only influence, or something that affects us and our people but is out of our hands.  How quickly we ascertain which of the three It is, and how we communicate that to those who work for and with us often determines whether we (the royal we) are going to rise above the challenge.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

In a past life, I commanded an organization responsible for deploying personnel to all parts of Europe and Africa. We were too short staffed in certain specialties to do what were we being asked to do, and getting additional manpower was out of our control. What was in our control was how we used the personnel we had. Instead of being resigned to playing the victim to asymmetric workload distribution between specialties, we developed an aggressive cross-training program that enabled the willing but underemployed to team with those who were in danger of burning out. As a result, we built a greater number of very capable, cross-functional teams that were scalable and incredibly efficient to deploy and employ, and we significantly improved morale in the process.

This speaks to three core truths of leadership: leaders create “we” organizations; leaders don’t play the victim; and, leaders help others manage change.

As the chief executive, my job was to instill a sense of shared purpose, creating a “we” organization that excelled at overcoming adversity and delivering client success. Those given additional training knew they’d be asked to work harder but were willing to give their discretionary effort to reduce the burden on their co-workers. If you know your organization has spare band-width in some areas, maybe you can tap into it through a renewed sense of shared purpose.

When leaders fail, they can’t play the victim. I tried so many times to get additional personnel, they called me Kevin de la Mancha. As frustrating as it was, we didn’t sit around and blame others for not being able to accomplish the mission; we got off our morass and found an alternative that gave us control back. If you’re not encouraging your people to find innovative ways to overcome It, they may not think you have what it takes to lead them to greater successes, and they’ll be less likely to follow.

Leaders have to model change resiliency; if you don’t have it at the top, you won’t find it at the bottom. Understanding and anticipating resistance to changing the status quo hierarchical way of tasking made it easier for me to communicate the positive effects we could generate (both up and down the chain of command) and involve those most affected in the implementation plan. When those affected demonstrated their buy-in, it silenced the nay-sayers and motivated others to want to do more work for the good of the team.

How are you dealing with It?  Are you resigned to suffer its impact on your organization, or are you aggressively developing alternative strategies to deliver success by giving your people the tools and opportunities they need to exceed expectations?

As the leader, overcoming It depends on you…

You have the stick.

Boss, We’ve Got a Problem

now’s not a good time to overreact!

Leaders must be intentional about creating a culture where employees aren’t afraid to identify situations that need correcting and where they feel empowered to suggest improvements.  That kind of climate doesn’t develop by accident, especially in an operating environment that can be a little (or a lot) chaotic from time to time.

An inexperienced pilot, unable to diagnose a complex engine malfunction, offered this solution to the problem:  I’ll let it run until it’s on fire, because I know what to do for a fire.”

I’ve worked for bosses like that.

Don’t get me wrong…the ability to coolly manage a crisis is a valuable skill, and it feels great to be recognized for saving the day. But, if your organization’s reward system is biased towards those who are best at putting out fires, you’ll end up with a bunch of corporate arsonists working for you–people who are perfectly willing to watch small problems grow into the crisis du jour while they make sure their super-hero cape is ready for wear.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Let’s review some of what we already know about solving problems:

People tend to view problems either as opportunities to improve, or as negative experiences to be avoided at all cost. Which way your folks view them depends on you. Do they trust that you’ll stay calm in the face of calamity, or do they dread your overreaction to simple inconveniences? Don’t tempt them to ignore or hide issues because it’s too painful to tell you. Bad news doesn’t disappear just because you stop receiving it.

The best solutions usually come from a team that’s given the resources (like time) and tools (like a simple problem-solving methodology) to be innovative in creating ways to improve performance and results. If you’ve made them comfortable with the tools, they can apply them equally well during critical times and during less hectic times for making continuous process improvements. Battlefield reactions are honed through peacetime training, and solutions developed collaboratively in a practiced manner go beyond mitigating the situation at hand to identify and address the root cause(s).

And, make sure you’re not undermining teamwork by favoring or rewarding only the “go to” people; they might be closer to the problem than they are to the solution. If you’re leading a team that always seems to be in crisis management mode, chances are good someone knew about a situation that needed to be fixed before it became a real problem.

So, what kind of problem-solving culture have you created in your organization? Are you the kind of leader that waits until a problem becomes a crisis, or are you able to thoughtfully choose between the potential solutions your high-performing team brought you for consideration?

It’s up to you, leaders…

You have the stick.

 

Integrity isn’t Flexible

A person stands atop words symbolizing success, attitude, ambition, knowledge, motivation, confidence and persistence

 

–if you don’t have it at the top, don’t expect it at the bottom

Regardless of what a company says, how a company deals with ethics and integrity issues directly reflects actual senior management values and loudly communicates those values to its employees.

It was announced this month that Wisconsin-based manufacturer Johnson Controls, Inc.’s board of directors cleared its CEO of unethical behavior (Johnson Controls Dismisses Management-Consultant Firm) after it was revealed he was having an affair with one of his executive management team’s consultants.  The board determined that there was no conflict of interest but terminated the long-time consultant’s contract, anyway.

Really?

OK, I have the stick for a minute.

I’m not even going to address the relationship between two consenting adults, or the fact that it appears one is being punished while the other is not.  Kind of reminds me of a New Testament story, and I try not to throw stones.

But the statement by the company spokesman stopped me in my tracks:  “All allegations involving senior management are referred to the board and handled in accordance with the company’s ethics and integrity policies,” the spokesman said.  “The board reviewed the referenced relationship and determined that no conflicts of interest occurred.  To avoid any perception or potential future conflicts, management elected to terminate the consulting firm (emphasis added).”

Am I the only one who gets the duplicity of that statement?  How can there not be a conflict of interest?  The consultant either directly or indirectly worked for the CEO.  By conclusively determining that there was no conflict of interest, the board is expecting us (and its employees) to accept at face value that the senior executive who signed the consultant’s check must not have known she was having an affair with his boss.  The board would have been predisposed to believe it, because Johnson Controls was named by Ethisphere Institute as a 2014 World’s Most Ethical Company (eight years in a row), so certainly no one on the executive management team would be less than ethical.

So I have some advice for the board:  with an issue of this magnitude, actually read the press release and think about how it’s going to be received by your clients, the public, and more importantly, your employees.  While a better statement may have addressed the investigation into the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest finding no evidence, actions speak louder than empty words.  Instead, you’ve confirmed by your statement that there’s no accountability at senior levels in the company.  The lesson you just taught your employees is that ethics are situational and integrity is flexible, so they can now start (if they weren’t already) pencil-whipping ethics and integrity training.

Here’s a little extra advice for the executive management team:  I wouldn’t continue to self-nominate Johnson Controls for Ethisphere’s award if you’re not serious about what it means to be an “organization that continues to raise the bar on ethical leadership and corporate behavior.”  I’m comfortable stating that any organization that knows its operating with a CEO having an extra-marital relationship with a paid company consultant isn’t raising that bar very high, nor is the CEO demonstrating much in the way of “ethical leadership.”

Integrity is a black and white issue; you either have it or you don’t; it doesn’t come on a graduated scale.  How the board deals with conflicts of interest–perceived or substantiated–reflects directly on company and employee values.  You can parade all of the awards you want for being the most ethical company in the world, but if that doesn’t start at the top, don’t expect it at the bottom.

I wish I were making this up, but I’m hard pressed to improve on this quote from the CEO himself in a note to his employees concerning the company’s ethics policy:  “Acting with integrity allows us to attract and retain outstanding employees, maintain the Company’s ethical reputation and meet the high expectations of our customers, partners and communities.  Our securely rooted ethical culture gives us a competitive advantage.”

Okay, board of directors…ready to try again?

 

You have the stick.