“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.

Span of Control

What’s the optimum number of direct reports? How many people should a single manager have working for them?

What we are referring to, of course, is “Span of Control,” and though there can be unique situations in some organizations, their are also decent historical guidelines.

Span of control isn’t simply dependent on individuals; it’s a basic limitation of all managers as it describes only their direct reports. Though any manager can control any number of people if there are enough levels in between, not so when it comes to direct reports.

Research (mostly military-based) has shown that a leader can directly control about three to six persons effectively. Additionally, the “relationships” among those supervised are as important as their actual number.

Managing four people who interact constantly might be harder than supervising five or six who work largely independently.

Generally, an executive (someone managing managers) should supervise a maximum of four or five people.

In real practice, you don’t have to be an expert to know if you’re in trouble with span of control. If you have more than half a dozen people reporting to you, it’s probably too many.

Even six could be too many if those six have consistent dealings with each other. The reason of course, is that in addition to managing relationships with each subordinate, managers have to get involved to an extent in their relationships with each other.

In simple terms, going from four to five direct reports, each with four direct reports of their own, potentially doubles your effective workload while increasing your output (productivity) capacity by only 20 percent.

If the people you supervise don’t interact, you can handle more of them.

Remember, too, that I’m discussing managerial span of control — managers managing managers. The numbers can increase significantly when managing individual contributors, particularly if highly skilled.

Just some thoughts…

Yooo-hoooo… Here I am!!

I didn’t disappear, just fell victim to the “wait until the end of the year to do that” disease.

I did, and it hurt. Traveled 6 out of the last 8 weeks out of the year… and remember, I’m one of those that doesn’t even like to travel. Simply brutal.

Further, with the growth of my business, I’ve been in something of a “hiring” mode, and that’s equally difficult to do — personally — while traveling.

Speaking of hiring… now that the new year is upon us, it’s a great time to do some cleaning up. And I mean the really difficult stuff. Have that performance conversation with the under-performing employee; hire that new sales or marketing pro; stop doing those things that don’t create enterprise value, and focus on those things that do.

I’ll be back soon with something to write home to mom about — thanks for tuning in.

Fish or fowl?

Fish or fowl? Black or white? Day or night?

We frequently find ourselves arguing whether human resources — as a function — is a true business partner in the strict financial sense or an employee advocate in the most liberal sense.

We’re wasting our time arguing semantics and methodology. Our resources are better spent discussing and acting on results.

First, let’s get some clear definitions and positioning. Is the human resources executive the do-all, end-all example of goodness and perfect behavior in the organization? Of course not. No single person or function is solely responsible for our organziations’ moral compass. We are, however, the keeper of that compass, like it or not.

It’s simple logic, not the soft, intangible, transactional focus that many embrace. As human resource executives, we are primary agents of organziational and behavior change — it’s what we do. As focal points for change, we become the defacto example for that desired behavior. Sorry, but there is a modicum of “glass house” while leading human resources.

This doesn’t mean we are, necessarily, this “employee advocate” that so many speak about. It simply means that we must be exemplify and model the very behaviors we hope to see in an organziation. Yes, to some degree, that’s every executive’s charge. But again, we may not be the moral compass of our organization, yet we are surely the keeper of same.

So what, you say? Here’s “what:” We must be true business partners in every sense. Our goals must always be the organization’s goals — no exceptions. Within legal and ethical boundaries, we should be prepared to do whatever is necessary to support our firm’s vision and direction with personal conviction. This is non-negotiable. In addition, we must always recognize that — like it or not — employees (managers and executives often included) look to us for positive, correct examples of desired behavior.

Let’s make sure we set that positive, correct example.

We Need Reinforcements… Send in the Leaders!

In my many years of experience growing, coaching and training leaders, I’ve discovered that it’s seldom talent… or training… or give-a-shit… that interferes with a leader’s success…, at all but the senior-most (the senior-most) level.

It’s reinforcement. Or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. Managers are trained, facilitated and coached, then return to the barren wasteland of their workplace, left to fend for themselves amid the hyenas, badgers and cape buffalos.

Identifying appropriate leadership behaviors is certainly valuable. Ensuring learners can understand and assimilate those behaviors… equally important. Senior leadership reinforcing those desired behaviors… priceless.

“In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus.”

Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.

In consulting terms, he means “When you ring the bell, the dog slobbers.”

And before any Psychologist wannabes (or the real deal) start to educate me on classical vs. operant conditioning, cut me some slack. It’s newsletter article, and I’m trying not to induce an eye-rolling coma.

Now, let’s be clear. Reinforcement isn’t reminding. Reinforcement is used to specifically connect awareness to execution. Or to quote the slobberin’ dog Doc: It’s “a consequence applied that will strengthen… future behavior.”

Like all things necessary and valuable, there’s a process involved, or in this case, four “elements:”

1 – Set expectations. And make ‘em clear, using specific, plain language. Employees sometimes have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair. And by clear, I mean the employee should be able to read it back to you, and you agree “that completely covers it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked if someone understands the expectations, and being told “well, they sure should,” based on peripheral, related discussions. I’m not talking hints, clues or innuendo here—I’m saying use simple, concise English language.

Unless of course you don’t speak English.In which case… ah, never mind.

2 – Follow-up. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job, exhibiting the very behaviors you are reinforcing. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good management.

3 – Consequences. Good and bad. Negative consequences generally sound like discipline or punishment and can serve as a learning opportunity. The purpose is to associate a behavior with something unpleasant, so they will not repeat that action (and others may see they are not supposed to act that way either). Positive consequences are still in response to an action, but this time, it’s a pleasant response to positive behavior.

Often times, when we give a negative consequence, we are actually reinforcing a behavior because we are giving that outburst unqualified attention, so be careful here.

4 – Modeling desired behavior. If you want someone to behave a certain way, the gold standard is to make sure they see you behaving that way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Actually, it is, though we oft-times manage to screw it up. We’ll promote positive motivation, then threaten someone because “it’s a special situation.” We’ll say we want no profanity, then let it slip because “we were provoked.” We’ll talk about timely meeting attendance while justifying our “hectic schedule.” No excuses. Model it, or don’t expect it. So, we reinforce to get the actual behaviors desired. Consistency, awareness, feedback, and a helping manner (we want them to grow and improve) are all essential.

Just do it…

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.