HELP! I hate to ask, but…

Ask for Help

“Can I do something to help?”

“No thanks; I’ve got it.”

Sound familiar? It should. That short conversation takes place millions of times every day across this country in the workplace, in stores, in the kitchen, between co-workers, bosses and employees, spouses, and parents and their children – basically everywhere.

And it’s not going to be any different in 2024.

Since this newsletter is about leadership, let’s start in the workplace. As leaders, we certainly don’t expect our employees to know everything; yet because many of them think and feel like we do, they’re hesitant to ask questions. And then we get frustrated with team members who wait until the last minute to ask for help – or don’t ask for help at all – and things go to hell in a handbasket.

Ever considered that your boss feels the same way when you don’t ask for help? They do!

Okay, I hear you. You don’t need help. All I can ask is that you keep this in mind next time you get frustrated at someone who won’t ask for help.

So, why is it so dammed hard to ask for help? Easy… we have egos.

Successful people are helpers, not helpless, right? We think asking for help makes us look weak, undermining our credibility as a (insert self-description here). We may think that, but it’s not true! Pretending we don’t need help when it’s obvious that we do is what undermines our credibility.

You’re not a failure if you ask for help. You fail when you need it and don’t ask for it – and the consequences create a crisis. Self-reliance can be both a strength and a self-limiting weakness. Especially at senior levels. We develop this huge blind spot about letting someone else lighten our load.

Well, here’s a hint on what your first clue should be that you need help:

Someone says, “Can I do something to help?

They obviously see something we don’t.

How about in 2024 we start building a culture where our people aren’t intimidated to ask for help by helping them understand the “when” and “how” to ask for it. I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but I know better… I’ve heard some.

Let’s start with when. Here are five good reasons to ask for help:

    • When you don’t know – you encounter a new process, new situation, new technology, new project, etc. Again, the world doesn’t expect you to know everything.
    • When deadlines are in danger – someone else is usually depending on you to complete your part of the project or process on time; don’t disappoint them.
    • When you don’t understand what’s expected – when you accept an expectation, you own it. Sometimes you have to gain clarity afterwards on just exactly what is being asked of you.
    • When you’re curious – not in a judgmental way, but actually trying to learn why things are done in a certain way, where what you do fits into the larger effort, or when you don’t understand a decision. WARNING: watch your tone of voice when you ask.
    • When you see an opportunity to develop someone – asking your team to help when you’re overwhelmed (or when you’re not) is an opportunity for you to practice empowerment and for them to grow in the organization.

Great! We’re almost there. Now that your team knows how to ask you for help, here are some tips for how to ask without sounding incompetent:

    • Make sure you need it – you have to have explored the possibilities before your boss offers a simple solution. It’ll help if you start the discussion with “I tried…”
    • Bring solutions, not problems – I wish I had a dollar for every time my daughters heard me say that. You need to be able to say “Here are the options I see…”
    • Be S-M-A-R-T – ask for the help you need, or you’ll get more help than you want. Make your request for assistance specific, meaningful, actionable, realistic and time-bound.
    • Don’t be a martyr – just because you wait until the last minute doesn’t mean it’ll only take a minute. The last thing you want to hear from your boss is “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?”

I know, you didn’t ask for my help, and you don’t need it. That doesn’t surprise me. Almost everyone I talk to says they don’t have a problem asking for help… and almost everyone does.

Let’s teach and model it in 2024, ok?

(and if you need my help, just ask)

It’s up to you, leaders.

1:1 Meetings aren’t for you — You know that, right?

One on One Meetings aren’t for you

Look, nobody is saying you guys don’t talk to each other. Really.

I mean, think about it… with some of your direct reports, you speak multiple times each day. Hell, some of them all day. Like it or not. And no, that wasn’t a question, so stop nodding your head.

And anyway, that’s not the point.

The point is, we sometimes speak so much and so frequently that we never seem to get around to the conversations we should be having with those we lead.

The conversations that are about them. Not about what you want, but what they want. Not about your needs, but what they need to move forward. Not about your grandiose vision and plans for the future, but their ideas on what their career, life and future will look like.

Enter the 1:1 meeting.

Everyone likes to talk about themselves. You get to do it all the time – mainly because we like to believe that the rapt attention we receive when doing so means that those in front of us are pining away, wondering what future you have mapped out.

In reality, they’re listening to you discuss the future to help them determine how (or if) they fit into it. Or even if they want to fit into it.

What should be happening, if it isn’t already, is that you sit down with your folks, individually and regularly scheduled, and listen to them talk about themselves. Things like, what they want, how things are going (really), their expectations, and how you might fit into their future.

How you might fit into their future?

Crazy stuff, huh…?

1:1 meetings, solo gatherings between you and your direct reports on a regular (read: scheduled) basis are not just any meeting. For instance they are not:

    • Routine status checks,
    • Repeats of operational updates, or even
    • Personal performance assessments.

They are, however, about:

    • Their priorities,
    • Their targets,
    • The challenges they face, and
    • What actions they (or you) might take to better help them do their job and achieve their goals.

(If you need a template, click here.)

Totally centered on “they” and “their,” not “me and “my.”

We don’t do 1:1 meetings just for the hell of it. As a leadership tool, they foster engagement, improve relationships, give us early warnings, and create that sought-after discretionary effort.

No visible downsides.

Wins all around.

Added resource: A more in-depth, instructional look at 1:1 meetings can be seen here.

Who’s Going to Miss You When You’re Gone?

Who’s Going to Miss You When You’re Gone?

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 someone has 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.

Get prepared!

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.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Middle Managers – where’d they all go? — Please come back – we’re sorry!

Middle Managers – where’d they all go?

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 Fires Assholes

Bob Fires Assholes… and you should too!

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.

Bob fires assholes. Be like Bob.

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)

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