Who’s In Charge Now? …and who’s going to do all the work?

I have been vexed lately by organizations that have failed to have a succession plan for key leadership positions. Why do we do that to ourselves??

Maybe a better question is “why do we keep doing that to ourselves?

It seems to be filed in our playbooks as one of the Lessons Not Learned. And I certainly have no stone to throw at anyone who finds themselves in the all too familiar situation, as I’ve watched two organizations I’m involved with lose individuals – one expectedly and one not – who were more important to our success than we realized.

Apparently, we created single points of failure instead of points of success.

Attrition is a normal part of any organization as key contributors leave for greener pastures and senior leaders slip into retirement. Some we know about ahead of time and others catch us off guard. Whichever the case, changes in leadership at all levels are disruptive.

If we’re prepared for the change, the inevitable disruption is short-lived. If not, the gap in leadership talent can have a catastrophic effect. And I’m not just talking about changes in C-level leaders where we’ve groomed a single heir apparent. Instead of grooming more single points of failure, good succession planning focuses on developing a pool of talent with the desirable skills and experiences to fill either specific or a broader range of roles.

Sound simple I know, but I acknowledge it’s not often easy. Identifying “high potentials” is difficult in most organizations because we’re not intentional about opening discussing people with the potential to become more senior leaders. Heaven forbid we develop someone who then replaces us before we’re ready (even though I’ve never seen that happen).

We’re also often caught off guard by departures which is usually indicative of not being as in tune with or aware of our team members intentions or retirement planning. Most of the time, that’s on us.

To make matters harder, we have senior leaders in the organization who are loathe to cause a domino effect by moving internal talent (who has to be replaced, which leaves a vacancy that has to be filled, etc.) and defaults to recruiting external talent. This, too, is disruptive and tends to frustrate the individuals who think they’re ready for the promotion and who will start looking for another job.

Who’s In Charge Now - Succession Planning A few years ago, I worked with a mid-level leader who was hired to corral diverse activities under a single manager. As successful as he was, there was no one individual who could stand in during his absences because they lacked the knowledge of and insight into what was going on with the other managers in the division. Frustrated at being the single point of failure and the Chief, Cat Herder, he left the company with no one ready to take his place.

Then who did his function revert to? His boss, of course, and we can imagine how that turned out.

Two pieces of free advice (physician, heal thyself?): Stop the lip service about succession planning, and start being intentional about growing talented individuals to take on greater responsibility in the organization.

So, where do we start? How about the current and projected organization chart?

Have we forecasted prolonged absences? Are we planning to add another team to handle growth or downsizing to respond to market changes? Are we even thinking about who’s going to replace those we know are going to retire?

Then:

  • Make talent identification a regular part of conversations between senior leadership and boards of directors. We just don’t do that enough. The C-level needs to lead the way!
  • Decide on the skills we need to lead the company through current (and I dare say, future?) challenges to the organization. Do we even do that once a year when we half-heartedly participate in strategic planning efforts? Again, those skill gaps need to be a more regular topic of discussion.
  • Organizations that take it seriously will then assess and develop their identified talent to close the skills gap critical for the continued success of the company. This can go a long way to motivating and retaining our future leaders which, in turn, reinforces our corporate culture.

In my experience, both in the military and corporate worlds, we don’t do effective succession planning because it’s hard. No, we don’t do it because we’re too focused on the day-to-day performance of those who work for us.

We can admire the organizations that make leadership transition look seamless, and shake our heads empathetically at those who suffer through it, but what are we doing to make sure the disruption isn’t detrimental to our own company?

What’s it going to take before we do something about our lack of succession planning?

It’s up to you, leaders.

What Does Leadership Feel Like?

Probably too many attempts have been made to define leadership.

Everyone seems to have their own favorite definition. More often than not, it comes down to “I know it when I see it.”

So instead of struggling to identify good leadership behaviors, try looking at the leaders you’ve known through a different lens. Ask yourself, “What did their leadership feel like?”

We follow leaders because they make us want to, not because we have to.

It’s an emotional decision to choose to do more than we have to. Good leaders get our discretionary effort because we appreciate how they make us feel – about them, about ourselves and about the organization.

Over the course of my Defense Department career, I had the privilege of working for and with a number of great leaders…and some not so great ones. There were as many different styles as there were leaders. I tried to emulate the good ones; the bad ones…well, let’s just say not everyone served as a good example.

I’ve got the stick for a minute

My favorite leaders aren’t necessarily charismatic or outgoing; they’re not all what you would call mighty warriors; some can’t (and never could) hold their own at the club on Friday nights.

But they all have one thing in common: they have a certain presence about them – leadership presence – that makes me like being around them.

Here are my three favorite traits that I think contribute the most to their leadership presence:

They have integrity. They don’t just do the right things when no one’s watching. They also have integrity you can feel, knowing in your heart that they’re going to do what they say – or own up to it when they can’t. No false promises and no excuses. Because of that, I trust them.

They’re genuine. They’re comfortable with who they are, and there’s no pretense in their behavior. Their compassion is real. That doesn’t mean they’re cuddly – far from it – but I’m certain of what they stand for and what they care about. They don’t have a need to be seen as more than they really are, and they don’t hide behind a veneer.

They’re present. They make me feel like what we’re discussing is important to them. They don’t act distracted by what else they could be doing, and they’re not casting glances at their computer screen or caller ID. It’s very calming, even if it is only for the few minutes I’m with them.

How do you make your followers feel? Look for the common traits in your favorite leaders and decide where you could improve your leadership presence.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

I Hate Goal Setting

Goals On Dartboard Shows Aspired Objectives And Desired Targets

 

 – it’s not the same as setting goals.

I hate goal setting. The whole business of it.

That’s why I was surprised by a conversation I had with my daughter a couple of weeks ago. Home from her fall semester, she was describing her goals to me – her grad school goals, financial goals, career goals, life goals – and I was amazed. When I asked how she learned about goal setting, she unexpectedly answered, “from you, of course.” I didn’t know I’d passed goal setting to another generation, because (if I hadn’t mentioned it) I hate goal setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate setting goals; it’s the only way I know I’m on track to where I want to go. But there’s so much of the institutional process of individual goal setting that is all about process and almost nothing about the accomplishment of what really matters.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Leaders who have vision and can translate it into an executable plan that followers buy into can be the Holy Grail to an organization. On the down side, results can easily be torpedoed by the intermediate level managers who don’t know how to get the people who actually DO work to set performance and developmental goals that support that vision and plan.

I would propose that few leaders have a good grasp on the goals his/her workforce sets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t held accountable for their workforce’s results. It’s past time to get involved.

As 2015 begins, we’re all being encouraged (or required) to set goals for the coming year. We all know what SMART goals are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound. I prefer clear, concise, actionable, and tied to organizational performance, but that would require a new acronym (C-CAT would only appeal to a very narrow audience).

The problem is that a step in any direction looks like progress to someone who doesn’t know where they’re going. Most organizations are horrible at getting individuals to understand how what they do contributes to organizational success. That breeds mediocrity at best, and sincerely misdirected efforts at worst.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: For the workforce to actually tie their performance to what leaders expect their organizations to do this year, serious effort is required at every level. Leaders and managers have to get more involved in communicating both how their people can contribute to organizational goals and how they can develop into more productive contributors.

STOP asking them to write nebulous performance goals (like “superior customer support measured by no negative customer comments”) and developmental goals (like “take an online course on how to get along with others”). They can easily meet those goals with no actual benefit to your organizational goals whatsoever.

Jack Welch said that before you’re a leader, success is all about growing yourself; when you become a leader, success is all about growing others. For those of you who think you’re leading, it’s about time you get more interested in helping others set meaningful goals than in setting your own.

It’s up to you.

You have the stick.

It Is What It Is

 –But what is it?

 I looked up from my desk the other day and noticed (again) a retirement present from a good friend and co-worker that says, “It is what it is.” Too often, I hear that phrase uttered in a tone of voice that conveys resignation to an unpleasant situation or acceptance of defeat. It doesn’t have to be.

As leaders, a key to success is in understanding the last part of the sentence:  “…what it is.”  It might be something we have control over, something we can only influence, or something that affects us and our people but is out of our hands.  How quickly we ascertain which of the three It is, and how we communicate that to those who work for and with us often determines whether we (the royal we) are going to rise above the challenge.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

In a past life, I commanded an organization responsible for deploying personnel to all parts of Europe and Africa. We were too short staffed in certain specialties to do what were we being asked to do, and getting additional manpower was out of our control. What was in our control was how we used the personnel we had. Instead of being resigned to playing the victim to asymmetric workload distribution between specialties, we developed an aggressive cross-training program that enabled the willing but underemployed to team with those who were in danger of burning out. As a result, we built a greater number of very capable, cross-functional teams that were scalable and incredibly efficient to deploy and employ, and we significantly improved morale in the process.

This speaks to three core truths of leadership: leaders create “we” organizations; leaders don’t play the victim; and, leaders help others manage change.

As the chief executive, my job was to instill a sense of shared purpose, creating a “we” organization that excelled at overcoming adversity and delivering client success. Those given additional training knew they’d be asked to work harder but were willing to give their discretionary effort to reduce the burden on their co-workers. If you know your organization has spare band-width in some areas, maybe you can tap into it through a renewed sense of shared purpose.

When leaders fail, they can’t play the victim. I tried so many times to get additional personnel, they called me Kevin de la Mancha. As frustrating as it was, we didn’t sit around and blame others for not being able to accomplish the mission; we got off our morass and found an alternative that gave us control back. If you’re not encouraging your people to find innovative ways to overcome It, they may not think you have what it takes to lead them to greater successes, and they’ll be less likely to follow.

Leaders have to model change resiliency; if you don’t have it at the top, you won’t find it at the bottom. Understanding and anticipating resistance to changing the status quo hierarchical way of tasking made it easier for me to communicate the positive effects we could generate (both up and down the chain of command) and involve those most affected in the implementation plan. When those affected demonstrated their buy-in, it silenced the nay-sayers and motivated others to want to do more work for the good of the team.

How are you dealing with It?  Are you resigned to suffer its impact on your organization, or are you aggressively developing alternative strategies to deliver success by giving your people the tools and opportunities they need to exceed expectations?

As the leader, overcoming It depends on you…

You have the stick.

Boss, We’ve Got a Problem

now’s not a good time to overreact!

Leaders must be intentional about creating a culture where employees aren’t afraid to identify situations that need correcting and where they feel empowered to suggest improvements.  That kind of climate doesn’t develop by accident, especially in an operating environment that can be a little (or a lot) chaotic from time to time.

An inexperienced pilot, unable to diagnose a complex engine malfunction, offered this solution to the problem:  I’ll let it run until it’s on fire, because I know what to do for a fire.”

I’ve worked for bosses like that.

Don’t get me wrong…the ability to coolly manage a crisis is a valuable skill, and it feels great to be recognized for saving the day. But, if your organization’s reward system is biased towards those who are best at putting out fires, you’ll end up with a bunch of corporate arsonists working for you–people who are perfectly willing to watch small problems grow into the crisis du jour while they make sure their super-hero cape is ready for wear.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Let’s review some of what we already know about solving problems:

People tend to view problems either as opportunities to improve, or as negative experiences to be avoided at all cost. Which way your folks view them depends on you. Do they trust that you’ll stay calm in the face of calamity, or do they dread your overreaction to simple inconveniences? Don’t tempt them to ignore or hide issues because it’s too painful to tell you. Bad news doesn’t disappear just because you stop receiving it.

The best solutions usually come from a team that’s given the resources (like time) and tools (like a simple problem-solving methodology) to be innovative in creating ways to improve performance and results. If you’ve made them comfortable with the tools, they can apply them equally well during critical times and during less hectic times for making continuous process improvements. Battlefield reactions are honed through peacetime training, and solutions developed collaboratively in a practiced manner go beyond mitigating the situation at hand to identify and address the root cause(s).

And, make sure you’re not undermining teamwork by favoring or rewarding only the “go to” people; they might be closer to the problem than they are to the solution. If you’re leading a team that always seems to be in crisis management mode, chances are good someone knew about a situation that needed to be fixed before it became a real problem.

So, what kind of problem-solving culture have you created in your organization? Are you the kind of leader that waits until a problem becomes a crisis, or are you able to thoughtfully choose between the potential solutions your high-performing team brought you for consideration?

It’s up to you, leaders…

You have the stick.

 

Integrity isn’t Flexible

A person stands atop words symbolizing success, attitude, ambition, knowledge, motivation, confidence and persistence

 

–if you don’t have it at the top, don’t expect it at the bottom

Regardless of what a company says, how a company deals with ethics and integrity issues directly reflects actual senior management values and loudly communicates those values to its employees.

It was announced this month that Wisconsin-based manufacturer Johnson Controls, Inc.’s board of directors cleared its CEO of unethical behavior (Johnson Controls Dismisses Management-Consultant Firm) after it was revealed he was having an affair with one of his executive management team’s consultants.  The board determined that there was no conflict of interest but terminated the long-time consultant’s contract, anyway.

Really?

OK, I have the stick for a minute.

I’m not even going to address the relationship between two consenting adults, or the fact that it appears one is being punished while the other is not.  Kind of reminds me of a New Testament story, and I try not to throw stones.

But the statement by the company spokesman stopped me in my tracks:  “All allegations involving senior management are referred to the board and handled in accordance with the company’s ethics and integrity policies,” the spokesman said.  “The board reviewed the referenced relationship and determined that no conflicts of interest occurred.  To avoid any perception or potential future conflicts, management elected to terminate the consulting firm (emphasis added).”

Am I the only one who gets the duplicity of that statement?  How can there not be a conflict of interest?  The consultant either directly or indirectly worked for the CEO.  By conclusively determining that there was no conflict of interest, the board is expecting us (and its employees) to accept at face value that the senior executive who signed the consultant’s check must not have known she was having an affair with his boss.  The board would have been predisposed to believe it, because Johnson Controls was named by Ethisphere Institute as a 2014 World’s Most Ethical Company (eight years in a row), so certainly no one on the executive management team would be less than ethical.

So I have some advice for the board:  with an issue of this magnitude, actually read the press release and think about how it’s going to be received by your clients, the public, and more importantly, your employees.  While a better statement may have addressed the investigation into the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest finding no evidence, actions speak louder than empty words.  Instead, you’ve confirmed by your statement that there’s no accountability at senior levels in the company.  The lesson you just taught your employees is that ethics are situational and integrity is flexible, so they can now start (if they weren’t already) pencil-whipping ethics and integrity training.

Here’s a little extra advice for the executive management team:  I wouldn’t continue to self-nominate Johnson Controls for Ethisphere’s award if you’re not serious about what it means to be an “organization that continues to raise the bar on ethical leadership and corporate behavior.”  I’m comfortable stating that any organization that knows its operating with a CEO having an extra-marital relationship with a paid company consultant isn’t raising that bar very high, nor is the CEO demonstrating much in the way of “ethical leadership.”

Integrity is a black and white issue; you either have it or you don’t; it doesn’t come on a graduated scale.  How the board deals with conflicts of interest–perceived or substantiated–reflects directly on company and employee values.  You can parade all of the awards you want for being the most ethical company in the world, but if that doesn’t start at the top, don’t expect it at the bottom.

I wish I were making this up, but I’m hard pressed to improve on this quote from the CEO himself in a note to his employees concerning the company’s ethics policy:  “Acting with integrity allows us to attract and retain outstanding employees, maintain the Company’s ethical reputation and meet the high expectations of our customers, partners and communities.  Our securely rooted ethical culture gives us a competitive advantage.”

Okay, board of directors…ready to try again?

 

You have the stick.