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.

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.

The Trilogy: Responsibility, Accountability, and Leadership

I recently had a conversation with some really smart people around Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Read the book, it’s a good one, discussing how intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic almost all the time. If you were expecting me to now give you some detailed book review, you’re about to be disappointed.

As these things often do, we ended up in an extended “bunny trail” conversation around the whole subject of individual responsibility and accountability, and what that really meant from a leadership perspective.

Here’s what we discovered during our lengthy and oft-times pseudo-cerebral discussions:

Responsibility–the easiest part. Responsibility is simply a list of things we do, tasks we perform, jobs we are given. Alan Weiss called this “inputs.” You can be responsible for myriad things, both that you specifically control, and some… well, not so much.

In my world, I’m responsible for coaching, facilitating, consulting, providing proposals, answering emails and calls, responding promptly to clients, etc.

These are all Responsibilities.

Accountability–it’s not the same as “blame,” per se, though there is a certain sect of people who would ascribe such. No, it’s bigger than that, yet infinitely simpler. It’s the outcomes of our responsibilities. It’s the results expected from our inputs.

For me, improved leadership behavior, demonstrably better skills, increased performance of a business, function, or enterprise (that actually follows my consulting or advice!) are all Accountabilities. It’s the results or outcomes of my Responsibilities.

We often confuse these two, yet the differences are both clear and significant. Pay attention to them.

Leadership–heavily influences both Responsibility and Accountability. For instance, we influence–actually determine–what a subordinate’s Responsibilities will be. We tell them what we want them to do, what we expect them to be working on, when to be there, etc. Leaders have, quite literally, 100% control (there’s that word) over employee Responsibilities.

Now Accountability gets a bit fuzzier.

Yes, leadership determines, from a starting level, what results and/or outcomes that an employee will be Accountable for (sorry for the dreaded stranded preposition–couldn’t be helped). But there is also a measure of personal acceptance required for real Accountability to be visible to others–an important component.

An employee can be Accountable “because I said so,” but evidence of that employee actually accepting that Accountability requires a willingness on their part to demonstrate that accountability openly, e.g., “Yes, I did that,” “No, it wasn’t an accident, it was my intent,” “That was my responsibility, and I didn’t do it,” and so on. These demonstrate acceptance of accountability, and that’s something only the individual can do.

Now, leadership clearly influences all of this. Leadership has to make sure that Responsibilities are clear, reasonable, and have value. Leaders must also ensure that an environment exists where accepting Accountability is not necessarily fatal; that demonstrating Accountability is a mark of courage and success, not of weakness and/or failure.

This, of course, is the heavy-lifting part.

The Cost of BAD Leadership

NPR just published a great article about the impact of “toxic leadership,” something that I think we all would agree is a problem, and not just in the military. (Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders)

Aside from the horrifying findings of the research (toxic leaders playing a role in the suicide of our soldiers), the article paints a vivid picture of a very special type of leader, one that I have encountered in many places. The article speaks to a new definition printed in the Army’s leadership bible (Army Doctrine Publication) that most, in and out of the military, can relate. What’s interesting is that the Army went to significant pains to describe what leadership isn’t. In doing so, they’ve painted a vivid picture of what most of us have encountered somewhere in our career and hopefully use that experience to learn what not to do similarly to the Army’s efforts with their definition of “Toxic Leadership.” (Army Doctrine Publication 6-22)

The Army’s definition, while wordy (like most military regulations) can best be summed up in its first line:

“Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.”

Have you ever run across someone like that who was in a managerial role? Someone who saw their employees, and likely their peers as a means to an end, typically an end that was completely self-centered in nature? If not, consider yourself fortunate.

So what is the cost of BAD leadership? In corporate America, we might see bad leadership tied to suicide but I personally think the suicide being committed most often is committed by our corporations rather than the employees subjected to it and what’s worse, it’s usually a slow suicide.

The cost of bad leadership can be measured in results, but more importantly the costs can be best measured in terms of results compared to said effort. Far too many organizations turn a blind eye to bad leadership because the bad leaders get results. How many times have you heard (or maybe even thought to yourself) “we can’t get rid of him; he gets results.” Maybe the thought should be “what is he costing us in terms of results we could be achieving?” These managers often do deliver results in the short-term but at a significantly higher cost than necessary. In many cases, those costs go far beyond hard dollars which is why they are sometimes easy to overlook. The real costs are frequently soft dollars that are harder to measure but carry much more impact.

Setting aside the emotion laced conversation of suicide, simply replace that with voluntary resignation or complete disengagement (quitting without leaving). Bad leadership negatively impacts the investment made in every new hire (military or corporate) by limiting the potential return (outputs) from that investment and significantly impacting the life cycle of the asset itself (separation or quitting without leaving). Longer-term, though suicide may not be a typical result of bad leaders in corporate America, the damage it does or can do to our current employees and future leaders is significant.

What makes bad leaders even more dangerous is that they tend to be very good at convincing those above them that they are good leaders and end up capitalizing on that false perception and get moved to even higher levels of responsibility. Their damage, then, is not localized and much harder to repair once discovered.

So what do you do about “toxic” leaders? I suggest that you treat them as what they are, a toxin. With toxins you usually have two choices, cut it out along with the damaged tissue (other infected leaders) or isolate the toxin by surrounding it with positive leadership and mitigate the negative impact. Most importantly, you have to deal with toxic leaders or like a real toxin in our bodies, the damage spreads and the longer it remains, the faster and deeper it spreads and dealing with the issue becomes more difficult.

So the question of the day is, do you have any toxic leaders?

Performance Management is Dead…–Long live performance management!

Necessary evil. Pain in the rear. The management penalty. Performance reviews are called many things, few of them positive. What’s up with that?? One of the most important things we do as senior managers is setting, and managing to, performance expectations.

Why, then, do we anguish about it so?

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

And that’s just wrong. The capital markets continue to get stronger – both debt and equity. Initial public offerings are coming back in style. The DOW is headed back up. It’s not about all the “other” resources anymore – it’s about the people.

People make us competitive, successful, and allow us to differentiate. Believe it, get used to it, and embrace it. It’s here to stay.

Having said that, what, then, do we do about those dreaded reviews? How can they help?

People want feedback. You do, your boss does. Your staff does as well. A good performance review is nothing more than feedback–feedback that you should be giving all along anyway. So, here are some tips to make the performance review process bigger, better, stronger, faster…

  • Get it off-line. We don’t need the speed of digital; we need the effectiveness of face-to-face. Make an appointment; sit in a chair next to your staff member, and talk. Really; people have been doing it for years. It doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you think.

    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 don’t attempt to simplify so much that we lose sight of that objective.

  • Make it work, and then leave it alone. Everyone – I see this all the time – is constantly reinventing, changing, and modifying their performance review process. It’s just a form, people.

    Furthermore, the choices are actually quite simple; there are only three performance results:

    • (a) Doesn’t meet expectations,
    • (b) Meets expectations, or
    • (c) Exceeds expectations.

    All else (in my opinion) are provided for comfort and conflict mitigation, not accuracy. More rating choices enables poor performance management, in my mind. The key is in the conversation, not the tool or the ratings, so don’t spend an inordinate amount of time here.

    Performance management, conversations, dialog, and setting expectations ARE keys, so there’s the real focus. To that end…

  • Train your managers. It needn’t be a two-day seminar, but give your managers the communication tools they need to do this effectively. Your success – and your company – depends on it.
  • Use performance reviews as the foundation for year-long conversations about performance expectations and management. Set clear measurements. Revisit them frequently. Give periodic metric updates. Prevent surprises and manage performance in real-time. Help managers learn how to manage performance  through conversations first; reviews, then, merely memorialize  those performance conversations.

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 that conversation.

Our success depends on it.

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