At C-Level Newsletter
Our newsletter, jam-packed with leadership tips, thoughts, and musings.
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…
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.
Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.
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.
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.
I had a mid-level manager ask me recently, “Is there a difference between giving feedback or giving criticism as a leader? Seems like the same thing to me.”
The differences seems subtle, but in reality they’re pretty damned big. And from a results perspective, the differences are huge.
Huge differences. Most have to do with intent and desired outcome.
Criticism, in its simplest form, is for the giver, not the recipient. To criticize is one of the easiest forms of ego defense, and is generally a display of defensiveness and lack of personal confidence. We criticize most when someone aspires to accomplish what we cannot (or will not), or when their accomplishment could somehow threaten ours.
It’s acting out hurtfully with negative thinking.
Feedback, on the other hand, is principally to help someone grow and improve. To positively change a behavior for the better. In other words, it’s more of what we recommend they do, and less of what they did wrong.
Further, if we include some self-reflection in our feedback — opening ourselves to others — we both grow. Our blind spots will be forever blind without effective feedback from others, and people are more inclined to be open with those who have been similarly open with them.
The Johari Window is a great tool for determining how public or “open” you are to receiving feedback, which is crucial for your feedback to be well received.
The more I increase my “public” or “open” window:
I can’t reduce my Blind area without help from others (feedback).
If I am to help others, I must learn to give helpful feedback.
It really is that simple.
And Be Brazen, remembering that Grace and Accountability can coexist.
It’s like a Jedi Mind Trick…
Leading with influence is real leadership. It’s the only leadership that matters.
But how? It’s simpler than we sometimes think, so let’s just keep it that way. No need to complicate things unnecessarily. Three areas to focus on:
Leading with Influence is simply “be the good example” on steroids. Exemplary, intentional behavior along with clear language on expectations and results gets us pointed in the right direction.
May the force be with you.
By D. Kevin Berchelmann
This is an interesting and pertinent topic to me, as many of my clients – some aware, some not – suffer from 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
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):
Eradicating micro-managing is the responsibility of both parties–the staffer being micro-managed, and the manager “doing” the micro-managing.