Bad News Bearers

…do we kill the messenger?

We’ve all heard – and probably used – the idiom no news is good news, meaning that if we haven’t been told something bad has happened, then nothing bad has happened… and that’s good news. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worked in an organization where that was true.

No, leaders who actually believe that if they haven’t heard any bad news then nothing bad has happened are a) wrong, b) just kidding themselves, and c) setting themselves up for spectacular failure. It’s much more likely that they’re not hearing bad news because people are afraid to tell them bad news.

If we trust our teams to do their jobs, and we do our best to help them be successful, then why do they withhold bad news from us? Do they think we won’t find out? Do they think they can fix it before we do find out? Do they hope some other messenger will be the bearer of bad news… and possibly get shot in the process?

Could it be that our usual reaction when things go wrong is something akin to road rage in the office?

A recent unpleasant experience with a local car dealership highlighted that using no news is good news as a business practice is a good way to destroy your service quality reputation. My frustration at my car being held hostage by the service department was fueled not by the department itself but by the rep that promised regular updates and repeatedly failed to provide them. When pressed to explain his lack of communication, he sheepishly replied, “I hate to give bad news to customers.”

My guess is that he’s not much better at giving his boss bad news.

OK, so we’re not road-ragers at work. Still, do we even know if our team is hesitant to bring us in the loop when something goes wrong? A good clue is if there is one person – a trusted agent of sorts – who keeps us informed about how things are running. We tend to appreciate the trusted agent’s insights and rarely get upset with them when they share bad news. Everyone else knows that and feeds us information about trouble in paradise through our informant… even though they probably feel like we’re playing favorites.

We all know that the best time to fix a small problem is before it becomes a big problem. But have we ever asked, “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” It’s probably not because they just discovered it. More likely, they were working up the nerve to tell us because of our usual reaction to bad news.

If we discover it before they tell us, do we behave as if we caught them in the act? Or tacitly accuse them of deliberately withholding the bad news and then mask our micromanagement behind trust but verify?

And how do we feel when we come out of a meeting where our boss confronts us about a situation big and bad enough that we should have known about? Worse yet when it happens in front of everyone and makes us feel stupid. Do we storm down the hall like a headhunter (and no, not the executive recruiter type)?

I’ve certainly been guilty of one or two – or more – of those negative reactions to bad news over the years. It took the intervention of a mentor to change my behavior, and countless unwitting employees can be thankful for him and glad they didn’t work for the old me.

If any of those situations ring true, here are a few hacks that helped me become a better leader… and easier to work for:

  • First and foremost, be a grown-up about hearing bad news. Short of a life-threatening situation, mature grown-ups (and good leaders) don’t lose control of their emotions and raise their voice. Grown-ups don’t intentionally make others feel stupid or incompetent. That’s actually a life hack, not just a leadership skill.
  • Don’t react to bad news; respond instead. Give it the old ten-count before you open your mouth and listen to what the bad news bearer has to say with an intent to better understand the situation. I had a boss that liked to say, “Now’s not a good time to overreact.”
  • When the situation is remedied, make it a lessons learned Include a discussion about ways to avoid a similar situation in the future. Leaders do that with every mistake that’s made – theirs or someone else’s.
  • Forgive and reassure. Remember that the offender already feels bad about the situation and give them an opportunity to both show and tell you how they have addressed it. Make sure they don’t feel like you’re always checking up on them. Trusting leaders don’t keep score.
  • Never go into a meeting unprepared. Make it a habit a habit to ask the team, “Is there anything I might get surprised by?

Remember, the main goal is to restore lost trust and let everyone put their behinds in the past.

Is that already the way you handle finding out about bad news? If not, why not?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Don’t Be a Leadership Dummy

stop making this so hard

I wanted to call this Leadership for Dummies, but that title was already taken. Looking through some of the other leadership improvement offerings, it boggles the mind how we’ve managed to take a subject whose basics haven’t changed in a few millennia and written a gazillion books that make it a more difficult concept to get a handle on. But we just keep writing.

Sure, new hurdles arise, technology changes, business environments change, the economy changes, we invent new ways of doing things, etc., but human nature hasn’t changed since the time of Adam and Eve and neither has what it takes to lead other humans.

As leaders, we often find ourselves in new situations – positions, companies, teams – that require us to adapt how we lead, but nothing changes what we need to do to be an effective leader. Let’s stick to the basics: We have to know where we’re leading; we have to be able to communicate that to others; and we have to be able to motivate others to help us achieve the undertaking. Plain and simple. From the team leader on the shop floor to the C-suites, the basics don’t change.

Do we need help developing a clear vision so we know where we’re leading? Often, yes. Do we need to continually improve our communication skills to ensure our expectations are clearly understood? Absolutely! Is it important to build a culture of trust and authenticity that allows us to give and get honest feedback and helps us know what makes our team feel rewarded? Damned straight it is!

So why the review of Leadership 101? Because there is so much “new” material out there about how we’ll need to lead in the coming post-pandemic era that uses big, strategic sounding words to obfuscate the leadership basics. Here’s an example I ran across from a well-known and respected business publication (paraphrased to remove the fancy language):

  • We’ll have to adjust our strategic vision to account for recent changes in our business environment while remaining faithful to our company’s core values.
  • We’ll need to communicate this new vision throughout the organization – including executable objectives as required – especially leveraging the media platforms that have matured over the last year (i.e., virtual town halls and team meetings).
  • We’ll need to reassess how to keep our followers motivated to perform and succeed in a way that helps us to achieve the vision (or at least keep from demotivating them).

Duh.

In other words, successful leaders will need to do in the future what they’ve been able to do in the past. Might have well told us that to wash our hair in the future we’ll need to apply shampoo, lather, and rinse (repeat as necessary).

I’ve been helping a former colleague (now a senior executive in the Pentagon) adjust to a new leadership position this past year, and to say that there have been some challenges leading and building relationships with the team she’s inherited would be an understatement. Some were motivated professionals weary of slogging through the bureaucratic morass while others were entrenched, low-performing functionaries who fertilized the morass while waiting for retirement. You get the picture.

It’s been both fun and rewarding to watch her overcome the hurdles and hit her stride. I asked recently how things would be different with the changing ratio of face-to-face to virtual work and her boss’ upcoming short leave of absence… other than having to attend more unproductive meetings.

Without giving it much thought, she replied that she understood the direction the Department wanted her to advance her portfolio in and was clear on her boss’ priorities. She’d laid out her expectations to the team, including regular progress checks, and now she was going to get out of their way and let them do their work. They trusted her to have their backs and knew her motivation was to help them be successful.

Sounds a lot like Leadership 101, doesn’t it?

Leadership isn’t difficult, but we continue to make it more difficult to understand than we have to. On the other hand, leading people is hard, and we can only get better at it through practice. Why do we think we’re any different than athletes or welders or doctors and lawyers? The key to being successful is to start with the basics and continue practicing throughout our careers – or for the rest of our lives.

Leadership dummies? Not if we stop making it so difficult.

How about you, leaders?

Faker! – Leadership & The Imposter Syndrome

You still wrestling with the memory of that bully giving you a wedgie on the crowded playground at recess in the 4th grade*? I’m probably not your guy.

I’m not a psychologist, I didn’t play one on TV, and I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And though I have no doubt that many of my coaching interactions sometimes feel like therapy to clients, they aren’t, and my endgame is always helping execs become better leaders and better versions of themselves.

Now, with that out of the way… a reasonably common refrain among managers of all levels and ilk is this phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome. Simply put (see “I’m not a psychologist” above), it’s feeling like you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, and that when discovered for what you really are, folks will judge you to be unworthy – an imposter who only achieved their position through sleight of hand, guile and chicanery.

Curiously, I see it frequently among those who appear most competent and successful. In other words, people who have likely proven their worth a multitude over.

Now, those who know me know I’m fairly direct, and have heard me use and apply Bob Newhart’s Stop It! video about a bazillion times, and this would be no different; feeling like you’re an imposter? Stop it!

Well, at least we know now why I’m no psychologist. I’d have to drive an Uber to feed myself.

But to those who face this malady, and it does sometimes seem significant to those affected, I offer a few pieces of advice:

Open your freakin’ eyes. My clients hear me frequently admonish with the question, “What’s your evidence of that?” Look, if you want to think you’re unworthy or a fraud, or believe that you haven’t actually done anything significant, I’d ask you to look around – do you not see the results of any of your efforts? Are people in your charge not better off? Are results/metrics/goals/objectives not being achieved?

They are, and those data points are what NCIS people call “evidence.” Not necessarily proof positive, put it’s in the same ballpark.

No risk, no reward. If you believe you’re a phony, and that others may sleuth around and pick up on it, you’re likely going to keep your head down, and try to stay off the radar. Lots of status quo in that world, and few leaders succeed being satisfied with status quo day-in, day-out.

There’s risk in leadership – get a helmet. If you are risk-averse because of a non-evidentiary belief, then prepare yourself; the real failure you experience won’t be nearly as imaginary.

Finally, you’re just not that clever. If you hold a reasonably senior role in an organization, do you realize how many people you have to be convinced bought your line of bullshit to reach that level? You actually think that, through your fear of being discovered, you managed to hide your incompetence, lack of delivery, and inability to provide necessary leadership to the throngs of managers and executives that promoted, mentored and supported you throughout your career to date?

Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds? “Why yes, Kevin, I completely buffaloed a Senior Director, an Ops VP and successful CEO in my meteoric – but completely baseless – ascension to this role.”

Seriously? Let me repeat – you’re just not that clever.

I understand – feeling less than fully worthy is no laughing matter (well, an occasional chuckle could be a pick-me-up); I get it. And no doubt it feels pretty real to those who experience that frustration.

But if you have no evidence of such tomfoolery, and you’ve not been cold-busted trying to do something you were obviously and completely ill-equipped to do, then cut yourself some slack.

  • Thinking you’re honored with a promotion is a good thing.
  • Humility in leadership is positive, and can be somewhat rare.
  • Realizing others could probably do the job at least as well as you is not an unreasonable thought, even if those promoting you felt different.

But believing that observable evidence is false? That you can lead others (and functions) while burying your head in the sand? That everyone else must have been a moron or you wouldn’t be here?

You gotta admit, it does seem a bit far-fetched.

Congrats on the role/position/responsibilities. You deserve them, and I have every confidence you’ll do well.

* Now, if you were humiliated when your 2nd grade girlfriend announced she didn’t like you anymore, we can definitely work together (Thanks, Robbie, I’m still working through that trauma).

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

  — It’s faster to just stop doing stupid shit

Annulla, Brooklyn creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The title above is from a book of the same name by Henry Alford, who tries to showcase the purpose and principles of this modern guide to manners — and what’s happened to them in our crazy-fast, interconnected culture. A major premise of his book is for us to know the things we should stop doing, hence the name.

And damn, is it appropriate for leadership success.

When coaching clients, there’s only a couple of ways to help them become demonstrably better at leading: Start doing things they haven’t been doing or Stop doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

In my experience, it’s infinitely easier – and a hell of a lot faster – to stop doing something than it is to learn, internalize and demonstrate a new behavior.

Why? Well, it’s likely some simple human-behavior-psychology mumbo-jumbo or such, but for me, it’s mostly just common sense. For instance:

There’s just too many of them. When your leadership scope is significant, there’s just too many of ‘em. You can stop doing something that everyone knows is a bonehead behavior, or you can ask 100-10,000 people what new change they would like to see in you and get potentially 1,000 distinct answers.

Are you ready to execute to 1,000 new behavior changes? I’m sure as hell not.

Much simpler to work at stopping the 1-2 less-than-positive behaviors we identified in our 360 survey; the results are usually consistent, and we get credit for trying, even if we don’t eliminate the behavior completely.

It ain’t baggage if you don’t carry it around.

All leaders are lugging around various pieces of baggage from our past – some real, some perceived. Some are small carry-on, under-the-seat sized; others are honkin’-big valet-carried, excess-weight, $75 checked bags.

Either way, it’s easier to jettison that baggage – knowing you won’t have to lug it anymore – than to try and make everyone forget about the baggage with new smoke and mirrors.

And finally,

It’s like kids eating their vegetables. They don’t want to, but they’ll do it — but only because they have to, and mainly just to stay out of trouble.

Convincing some leaders to do new things is equally hard. Many times, they think others will see them as “soft,” or worse, “weak.” Other times, they may feel like they’re giving in to the entitlement mentality (don’t even get me started on how ubiquitous across all generations that can be).

Then there are the test-drives – trying out new behaviors, multiple times on multiple people, all to see if it works for them.

On the other hand, simply refraining from doing something seems altogether easier, and feels more like altering others’ perceptions than changing their personal, specific behaviors.

It’s a win all around.

Finally, no “Stop It” commentary can possibly be published without mention of Bob Newhart’s famous Stop It skit from Saturday Night Live. I use it with most of my coaching clients, and I’s funny as hell. A keeper.

In changing your leadership impact now – immediately – today – focus on what you can stop doing, allowing yourself the time to add “start doing” behaviors over time.

When Crisis Turns to Chaos

it separates leaders from managers

This is definitely not one of those academic treatises about the difference between leadership and management. I outright despise those.

Nor is it a “thought piece” similar to those written in the last year about leading and managing in and through a crisis. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of them crowding our inboxes.

Think back – just about a year ago, we were all facing a crisis of global proportions of which we had no control. We had to react and respond at the same time, and we were all taxed just to keep toilet paper in our bathrooms, not to mention our businesses running while keeping our workforce and our customers safe. For many businesses (if not most) managing our response to the crisis was more of a life-or-death issue for the company than it was for our people.

Here in Texas we pride ourselves on getting through one crises – economic, natural, and political disasters are all second nature to us now. Believe me when I say we can lead and manage the hell out of a crisis.

And then hell Texas froze over.

Now 2020 definitely sucked, and 2021 was off to a shaky start, but just when we thought we were hitting our stride with COVID – balancing work between home and office, keeping stores and restaurants open without endangering anyone’s health, and keeping industry producing and the economy running –  Texas came to a screeching halt.

It happens all over the world because Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and some equally disruptive catastrophic events are mankind’s own doing. The question for us then is: How do we lead when the shit hits the fan? Crisis sucks; chaos eats crisis for lunch (with a nod to Peter Drucker).

So, what do we do when crisis turns to chaos?

The first thing we want to do well is manage the hell out of it. Calm heads with excellent managerial skills find ways to keep producing, delivering, selling, operating, etc., the best we can. Lessons learned when we tame chaos and crisis back to normal day-to-day operations can quickly become marketplace advantages. If we don’t do it well, we’re probably just like everyone else.

How’s that different that what we did most of 2020? Not much, except that for much of 2020 we weren’t that concerned about our workforce freezing to death or being physically unable to leave their homes. Not to mention how little concern we had for their home repair projects.

I’m not down on managers. Often underappreciated and over maligned, managers get a lot of flak for not being good leaders. But it’s our own fault when our great doers aren’t great managers and great managers aren’t great leaders if we haven’t given them the tools to be effective. Here’s an example:

A local hospital department manager I know (a good doer) responded to the chaos around him by contacting each of his employees in the hospital and the surrounding clinics under his control when they could report to work (and left their supervisors out of the loop). But he didn’t ask a single one how they were doing. When one of the employees reported she had fallen on the ice and broken her arm, he only asked for how long she might miss work.

Remember the childhood game Follow the Manager? Remember the old war movies where the hero crawled out of the trenches and managed the charge into the heart of the enemy’s gunfire? How about when Ken Blanchard said, “The key to successful management today is influence, not authority.”

No, because none of those are real.

In crisis-turned-chaos, a leader’s concern has to be first and foremost about people. Does it suck to have to lead and manage simultaneously? Sometimes. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s what they pay us the big bucks for. And we can’t manage or lead without dealing with people, so when we’re trying to do both at the same time in the midst of chaos, here are four key skills to rely on:

  • Make sure your people are safe. The military has a few institutionalized methods of reaching every single servicemember under an individual’s charge. It starts at the top and branches out so that at each level of supervision, everyone is accounted for and provided critical information. If our organizations don’t have a way to pass accountable information from the top to the bottom other than sending ignorable emails, we’re doing it wrong. In chaos like this, a leader’s number one concern should be: are all my people safe. The next should be:
  • Ask if they need help that you can provide. We may not be in a position to provide anything but moral support. On the other hand, we might have a list of resources they can reach out to. Totally dependent on us and/or our organization, but the least we can do is listen to their needs. Leaders listen and then:
  • Admit vulnerability. I couldn’t get out of my neighborhood for a week, so I couldn’t rescue my daughter who was without power and water, and she couldn’t get to us. Hell yeah, I felt It’s okay to admit stuff’s happening that we can’t control and don’t know when it’s going to end, but leaders do it in a way that doesn’t portray helplessness or hopelessness. Leaders acknowledge the difficulty while portraying the confidence that we’re going to make it through it stronger. I know it sounds cheesy, but people are looking for a confident anchor in their leader, not an uninflated life preserver. Finally:
  • Execute 360-degree leadership. Once we’ve accounted for all our people and done what we could to assure them they’re not alone, reach out to peers to see how they’re doing and then call our boss. Like a preemptive strike to keep from being inundated by incoming calls yourself. Is it elf-serving to call your boss to check in? Maybe if that’s the motive, but in this case, it’s just good leadership.

Managers are about the organization; leaders are about the organization’s people. We don’t often sit around ruminating about responding to chaos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt once in a while. Because our response will reveal whether We Care About People on the wall is a core value or only a trite slogan.

It’s up to you, leaders.

One thing for sure, there are a lot of Texans who look back fondly on the days when we only had a global pandemic to deal with.

That’s a Honkin’ Big Tail!

  — Be careful how you swing it…

A couple of years or so ago, I wrote an article about what you lose when you ascend into senior leadership (especially CXO-level). You may gain a lot – dinero, status, authority, new biz cards, etc. – but you also lose a few things. One of those things I wrote about was your ability to merely suggest.

You lose that right when you join the senior leader ranks, since your suggestions will almost always be implemented – much to your feigned shock. Your suggestions sound like, well, more than just suggestions. And even if they didn’t, it’s easy to draw a line between your suggestions and “I thought that’s what you wanted,” and making the boss happy is a small price to pay to get you out of my hair or off my ass.

Oops, did I say that last line out loud?

It’s true, though, that your suggestions sound less like spit-balling, brain-storming or thinking out loud, and more like “Here’s what you should do.” It just is – deal with it.

There’s also that big, honkin’ tail you lug around behind you.

You know what I mean.

Abrupt changes in direction from your position create massive movements, ripples, and gnashing of teeth at every level below you on that chiseled-in-sand org chart of yours. You unilaterally make what you think is a minor course correction, and that “tail” of yours causes plans to shift, objectives to be altered, directives to be rescinded, even people to be hired or fired.

That’s some big tail.

Back in the days when we could travel… <sigh>, people wearing backpacks on their backs while navigating airplane aisles would irritate the crap out of me. Like a protruding shell on a turtle’s back, these ignoramuses would whip around to talk to someone or eyeball an open overhead bin, oblivious to the carnage being caused by that rip-stop nylon bulge affixed just above their butt.

That suitcase-sized lump on their back acted just like that senior leader tail I mention above. Ignorant of the impact to others, whipping around that tail can cause damage far greater than just a pissed off couple of passengers in first class.

And don’t think for a minute that, as long as you don’t change course quickly, the tail is harmless. Just having that tail causes consternation. A couple of real-world examples:

You want to go visit the office in Dubuque. Your regional VP calls the office ahead of you, tells them you’re coming, and to “get the place cleaned up.”

That honklin’ big tail of yours…

You stroll down the hall, feeling generous since there’s a hole in your schedule, deciding now would be a good time to have a little personal chat with another senior leader. You poke your head in, ask if she’s got a minute, and 30 minutes later you leave, content that you’ve nurtured the relationship and shown that you care.

In reality, you just cost her 30 minutes she’ll never get back and was probably planning on using for something meaningful.

But your damned honkin’ big tail got in the way.

I don’t tell you these things so you’ll intentionally avoid making priority shifts, course corrections or plan changes. I don’t do it so you won’t go to Dubuque or take some time to chat with another senior leader about softball schedules and their secret stash of Blanton’s.

Just realize, there’s this honkin’ big tail behind you, and take the swath it makes into account when you do these things. Understand that, try as you might, that thing is going to swing wide in your wake, and create some turbulence no matter how much you wish it to be different.

Be aware, acknowledge the impact, and be prepared for (and demand) lots of inputs from those affected.

Both before and after swinging that thing.

Sort of a “Tail Mitigation Initiative.” TMI for short.

And after thinking about the backpack bozos on United, maybe I don’t really miss traveling after all…

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