From work, I mean. I may have a dark sense of humor, but I’m not morbid.
No, my guess is you’re going on vacation in the next two months and not much thought has been given about who’s going to get your job done while you’re not there.
How do I know? It’s the end of October and the holiday season is upon us. Full of cheer and distracted employees, struggling to meet end-of-year performance targets, trying to assure the family that this year will be different and you won’t “have to take this” phone call, and maybe planning to sneak away for some well-deserved out-of-town celebration.
Good luck with that.
No really, I’m in a position that few can make demands on my time that I don’t allow (or enable), and even I get a little anxious about the upcoming craziness.
Okay, enough. This has nothing to do with your holiday plans and everything to do with how things run at the office when you’re away. Good leaders don’t just put their vacation plans on the office calendar and then go away assuming it’ll all be waiting for them when they get back.
True confessions: I used to… but I wasn’t a good leader back then.
Then, I got some sage advice from – of all places – a career civilian who ostensibly came to the Pentagon to do work… he wasn’t a good leader, either. He said, “Never take just a week off; they’ll just pile stuff on your desk until you come back. Take two weeks; then someone will actually have to do something with that stuff.”
Isn’t that great?!? Someone will have to do something with that stuff. As if what we do is summed up by stuff that someonehas to do something with.
I prefer to think differently, but maybe that’s just me. I prefer to think that a leader’s role involves activities and people, engagements we want to have and functions we directly support that are critical to the success of the organization.
If that’s not true for you, maybe you can spend some of your vacation time thinking about the something that someone may or may not be doing while you’re gone.
That feels like a lot of prelude before the big event, but it’s important that we’re on the same page of the same hymnal. Effective leaders have to think differently about what they intentionally do at work and who will stand in the breach for us when we’re not there.
Here’s a newsflash for those who think they’re indispensable to the organization and it’s likely to crumble without them: you’re not, and it’s not.
Surprisingly enough, surprises happen, and it sucks if you haven’t planned for them in advance.
Here’s one. My wife tripped over her dog and broke her kneecap. Immediately away from the office for three months. Shit happens – to our kids, parents, and spouses – that takes us away from the office longer than we’ve prepared for.
The real test of a good leader is that no one really notices when you’re not around… within limits, of course. Leaders should already be preparing those who will come after them to step up while they’re away, and they should have already made the upper echelon know who’s capable of handling tasks in their absence.
If that’s news to you, you must be new here. Read this about preparing those behind you to lead.
This also shouldn’t be news, but there are three cohorts to think about:
Your Boss. Don’t we all wish our bosses appreciated how much we do? Well, here’s your chance. In your planned (or unplanned as the case may be) absence, lay out who will be covering each aspect of your responsibilities while you’re gone. And that includes your boss.
Some (mostly administrative) parts of our jobs can’t be accomplished by a member of our team. Make sure the boss knows which ones those are and what to expect to come across his or her desk in our absence.
The Team. You should have already empowered team members to do as much as you’re willing to let them do / as much as they’re capable of doing / as much as they’re willing to do. (Again, if you’re new here, read this about empowerment next.) So you already know who can do what.
It’s important critical to let the rest of the Team know who will be picking up which pieces and setting expectations about where to go for guidance outside their area of expertise. This may require setting a matrixed pecking order that not everyone will like. Wah!
Outside Customers. The obvious customers are the ones we deal with about business on a regular basis. Let them know before you go who to contact for questions.
The less obvious ones are the family and friends we’re spending our time with away from work. Having already communicated our lack of availability to our boss and staff, make sure those we’re spending our leisure time with know we’ll only respond to true work emergencies – which there should never be in our absence – and then hold the line.
Never underestimate the importance of disconnecting from your profession. Leaders draw strength to lead from deep within, and if you don’t refresh and recharge your source, you will fall short of being the kind of leader you want to be.
Or don’t. Take a week off and enjoy the holidays. We’ll see you back here still burned out after the first of the year.
In today’s business climate, where rapid change, technological breakthroughs and improvements define the quest for high performance, middle-managers are making a comeback —a real renaissance of sorts.
But the more appropriate reaction requires a candid look at why we thought eliminating their roles was a brilliant idea in the first place. Mostly a courtesy of the cost-cutting wizards from McKinsey, Bain, Alavarez, et al., but that’s for another article.
Doing Less with Less
The unfortunate truth is, we’ve been actively squeezing middle management out of the workforce now for a couple of decades at least, and the toll has been ugly. In many cases, we were blindly thinking we were doing “more with less.”
It turned out, of course, that simply was not the case; we’re just doing less with less. In fact, more senior leaders today are simply doing what middle managers used to do. Some of them are doing it all the time.
No elimination of the role, just a headcount reduction and realignment of responsibilities.
But employees today are less developed than ever, less engaged than ever, and less satisfied than ever.
Doing less with less is not a strategy worth repeating and certainly not the most efficient or effective way to stay ahead of the curve. In short, it’s creating single points of failure in myriad organizations.
A Sign of The Times
Kicking along our memory lane… along came the financial meltdowns in 2008-2009, and the “all-hands-on-deck” mentality really worked to camouflage the mid-management shortfall. Everyone was micro-managing, so the lack of mid-management was mostly indiscernible.
Once some normalcy began returning, no one felt that adding now-deemed-superfluous headcount (see “wizards” above) was a good idea, so we kept those mid-managers from returning. Dumb idea. Short-sided and misguided.
Fast forward a decade or so, and along comes the apocalypse… the Covid-19 Pandemic. Again, it’s all-hands on deck. CEOs are having seemingly empathetic zoom calls with all employees; townhall meetings are rampant; everyone was committed to being as cooperative and collaborative as possible, since “we were all in it together.”
In such a collectively social environment, surely we don’t need a bunch of interlopers between individual contributors and the C-suite…!?
We’d continue along in our misguided bliss.
It’s today; we’ve come face-to-face with the now-normal – operational pressures, sketchy economy, political idiots on all sides… coupled with remote vs. office, quiet quitting, inflationary wages, and (my favorite) layoffs announced via social media (are you kidding me?)/
We’ve come to realize that no one is actually accountable for day-to-day leadership, management and watching the store.
Lots of people want to be responsible thousands of employees, $millions in capital, and 5-year strategic initiatives. No one, it seems, is around to make sure that next Wednesday goes without a hitch. That the parking lot lines get painted and the break room refrigerator is replaced.
To say nothing of people getting developed, being heard, and appropriately hired, onboarded, trained, and recognized.
Here’s the rub: we’ve discovered (like it was some big, freakin’ surprise), that senior leadership is incapable—from a bandwidth perspective—of managing day-to-day tactical efforts while dedicating brain-time to strategy and longer-term, organization-wide thinking.
The workload is simply too much, the machine is moving too fast, and the priorities are not working.
Supervision and Management-Still Key to Organizational Success
Leadership is essential for organizational success, of course, but so are supervision and management.
After all, someone has to deal with daily performance challenges, operational issues and changes in tactical direction. And the people. For Pete’s sake, don’t forget the people.
These are not always intuitive leadership roles, but those of experienced managers.
“Flattened organizations” sounded so good, so trendy. As did “leadership more in touch with the people.”
As the present day scenario teaches us, however, there’s a problem with using fads and cutesie catch-phrases to run a railroad. Reality slams you in the face.
All of that, and I’m not even going to address the incredible dearth of viable succession depth (again, another article).
And as we pick ourselves up off the ground and dust ourselves off, we are left with only one request— “Middle Managers, please come back, we need you.”
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.
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.
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)
A really short read for some of you today: Everyone who has a great job, raise your hand.
Okay, the three of you with your hands up can go back to checking your email. Everyone else should keep reading.
If you’re not in a great job, how about those of you with a good job?
That’s more of you but still disappointingly few. Now, bonus points if you can articulate what makes it a good job.
Is it the money? Do you like it because you’re good at it? And they recognize you for it? Do you have the autonomy you want? Or is it because you like the people you work with?
Some or all of the above? Those are certainly the most common responses to the question.
Or maybe you like your job simply because you feel secure in being employed for the foreseeable future and it’s one less thing you have to worry about in life.
Regardless of how you feel about your job, how often do you engage those who work for – and with – you in an effort to make their jobs better for them? That’s our job as leaders, after all.
I can hear your eyes rolling. Geez, Kev, why don’t we just pay them a lot of money and don’t ask them to do very much?
I had a job like that once. It sucked.
This may come as a surprise to some, but work is something you do, not somewhere you go. And it doesn’t have to be a grind.
And this isn’t some squishy, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings leadership. You know me better than that. If we want to be effective leaders, we haveto care about what people think about their jobs because it directly impacts their performance and retention. And, as important, what individuals collectively think affects morale, culture, and recruiting across the entire organization.
And there’s the rub: We have to care about individuals.
See, it’s not the job itself; it’s the personal experience in the job that makes it good fit or not. It’s how they feel about the work they do that keeps them coming back day after day… or looking for another job.
The naysayers will disagree (of course) and declare work is transactional. Go to work, do the job, get paid, go home. We call those people managers, the jobs mind-numbing, and the talent pool wide but shallow.
I started asking people I led how I could make their jobs better almost out of desperation – not because they were leaving but because we were really short-handed, and I needed to get the best out of them. It was a hard habit to get into, but it paid big dividends in job satisfaction and productivity.
Literally, I tried to wrap up our encounters by asking, “So what can I do to make your job better?” Initially, responses were predictable: pay me more and work me less (see above). Over time, real suggestions came out. Some I couldn’t change, some we could fix together, and some I could empower them to fix themselves.
But even small changes made their efforts more successful (which made me look more successful), and it eventually produced a climate where people believed their boss was open to suggestions and not mired in that’s the way we’ve always done it.
So, I tried the practice with my peers – and occasionally with my boss – and was surprised at how little effort it took to build a climate of collaboration for making improvements that benefited the organization as a whole.
For the naysayers (again): this isn’t a new concept! There isn’t anything new under the leadership sun and there hasn’t been for a few millennia. It’s just another way of getting feedback and removing some of the (often self-imposed) hurdles keeping your team from being more successful.
Think of it this way: Many of you are fans – and understand the importance – of helping your teams understand the WHY. The importance of leaders understanding the WHY of their followers should make sense to you, also.
And making the effort is free!
Back to the basics here: people want to feel valued doing worthy work. A leader’s job is to find out what makes them feel valued and what makes their work worth doing. That doesn’t mean we’re their friends; it means we’re working for them and not them for us. They still need adequate instruction (training), to understand our priorities and our non-negotiables, to be empowered to accomplish their jobs successfully without micromanagement, and to be fairly compensated for their efforts.
But it doesn’t hurt if, while we’re doing all that, we find out what they think would make their job better. It might end up making them feel like they have a great job.
I’m going to catch shit for this by leadership academics, but I catch shit for a lot of things I write, so…
The big news from last month that isn’t surprising describes how a mathematician proved the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t really a good reflection of human cognition. Before you get bored by scientific-sounding jargon, enjoy John Cleese’s version of the effect: “If you are really, really stupid, then it’s impossible to know that you are really, really stupid.”
For the non-academics, Dunning-Kruger says everyone thinks they’re above average, but people who are above average tend to think they’re less above average than they actually are, and people who are below average tend to think they’re more above average than they actually are.
It doesn’t take a mathematician poking holes in a generalization or psychology professors testing whether incompetent people are unaware of their incompetence to prove or disprove what a good comedian already handily described.
In short, clueless people don’t know they’re clueless.
And I’ve certainly known my fair share of clueless people, although I prefer to describe their cluelessness as a giant Johari Window blind spot. Mostly to describe my daughters’ boyfriends.
Speaking of Johari, it has its fair share of critics, too. They say the tool is only useful if its users are honest when taking the survey(s) and are willing to apply the results to improving communication and relationships.
But guess what? Some people don’t always present their authentic selves to others.
In the leadership development field, it doesn’t really matter which personality trait/type tool you prefer, there are just as many critics who laugh at you for things like making employees wear colored badges around the office as there are to support your development efforts. What we sometimes forget is that all of the tools are just generalizations about human nature – which hasn’t changed recently as far as I can tell.
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” Mark Twain
So I’ll finally get to my point(s). First, if the critics of the tools would spend as much time applying them to their own behavior as they do bashing them, it would be more enjoyable to be in the same room with them. That applies to most chronically critical people, by the way.
Second, we (assumably as leaders) are supposed to help clueless people improve so they’re not so clueless.
But get this: We aren’t supposed to help them because they’re clueless, we’re supposed to help them improve both because their behavior is disruptive in the workplace and it’s keeping them from being as successful as they can in your organization. That’s what leaders do.Provide feedback that will help clueless people grow and improve.
Okay, I’ll stop calling them clueless. How about unaware?
And I’ll freely admit that there were times in my career I was oblivious to how I was coming across to my coworkers. Just like there were times I was very aware… but pretended to be oblivious (see EQ as a Superpower). Real office jerks know they’re being a jerk.
My question is: “What are you doing to help them improve?” How do you help the one who feels like they always have to give input, relevant or not? How do you help the disruptive one who rubs everyone the wrong way or who spends their spare time disrupting those who are actually working?
Even harder, how do you help your boss not be the one no one else wants to be in the same room with?
First, make sure they actually lack self-awareness and aren’t just behaving badly. And then make sure it’s not you. Could the tension be mutual? Could coworkers be contributing to the effect of the offending behavior? Could the root problem be solved by a simple suggestion?
If they really lack self-awareness, they’re not aware of their shortcomings and don’t know that to become a better team member, they need to grow and improve. This is where a leader’s skill at providing effective feedback comes in (see link above).
Focus on the behavior, keep it private, put yourself in their shoes first, and be careful not to make them feel like it’s a personal attack. And put hard thought into possible roots of their lack of self-awareness – not therapy level, but things like need for recognition, insecurity, emotional awkwardness, perfectionism, procrastination, etc. You know, those things a lot of people struggle with but don’t know how to mask them behind a thin veneer of confidence.
Remember, it’s the behavior you’re trying to change. If the person wants to and changes in the process, all the better.
Then offer some alternatives to the offending behavior.
Maybe consider the merits of both sides before… Maybe you could try… Maybe next time… Maybe resist… Or even next time I see it, I’ll…
This is about them, not you, and if they leave the encounter feeling belittled and without your support, you haven’t done a leader’s job.
Finally, don’t let HR dictate the tools you have to use to help your team grow and improve. Stick to the leadership basics and model the behaviors you’d like others to have.