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…

Perfectionism Revisited

            … stop being a do-it-all

About 4 ½ years ago, I wrote a piece for At C-Level about being a Recovering Perfectionist. I thought I knew everything there was from personal experience about helping others over their perfectionist addiction. It’s simple, right? It’s just a matter of reframing success.

At the time, I readily admitted I was a controlling perfectionist and even enlisted some friends and family to keep me from slipping back to my old ways. Not the best idea I’ve ever come up with.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten any better. While I may never stop noticing when someone fails to live up to my unreasonable expectations, it’s been a fairly simple matter to stop bringing it to their attention. Like I’m doing them a favor letting them go about their day in blissful ignorance.

The problem? I’ve become a do-it-all.

Know-it-alls are annoying right to your face. In the military, we called them springbutts… the kind of people that spring to their feet in order to be the first with an answer. Often wrong but never in doubt. You probably have a couple in the office. Always seeking attention and validation, they’re just plain annoying.

Do-it-alls, on the other hand, are not always looking for attention… not overtly anyway. You can spot them when they grudgingly raising their hands and say, “I’ll do it.” And, while there are do-it-alls at every level of an organization, a do-it-all in a senior leadership position can absolutely cripple an otherwise high-performing team.

What does all that have to do with a perfectionism addict like me? Well, that’s my selfless motivation obviously. I know the task won’t be fun, but I’ll be doing it to my high standards which will make it better than if anyone else tried to do it. The problem comes when a leader tries to do it all and wastes their time ‘doing’ instead of leading.

Doing neither well, the do-it-all in them doesn’t get it all done on time, while the leader in them doesn’t see the negative effect it has on the team’s productivity. That only makes them feel more guilty and inadequate because they can’t do it all the way they want… and that makes them damned hard to work for (and live with). Face it, it’s impossible to meet all the demands created by our own unreasonable expectations. “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” is a lie.

So stop being a do-it-all. Here’s how

First, prune yourself. Like a tree that yields better fruit when the less productive branches are cut away, take stock of the things you’re doing and cut away the tasks someone else can do (aka delegate or empower others) – even if it’s painful because they’re not being done at the A+ level. Just DON’T delegate to another do-it-all at the next level, and don’t forget to let others know you won’t be doing it in the future.

After the pruning comes reframing success. We have to stop expecting perfection! We’re imperfect human beings who will be much happier without the regular beatings we give ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ (whatever that is). Some examples: Is fully compliant and on time successful? How about getting a message across effectively, kinda like giving the time without the instructions for building a watch? How about the board reaching the desired decision after your presentation – even if you missed a well-rehearsed point or two? Yes, we all strive to do our best, but we can’t be our best when we’re weary from carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Next, give yourself a cookie. Reward success. A pat on the back, a shout out during a staff meeting, an actual lunch break, or even a walk around the production floor just to talk to and check on others. Whatever gives the successful person (or us) a few minutes to bask in the afterglow of a job well done. Too often we jump into the very next ‘have to’ or ‘need to’ without purging our minds of the ‘should haves’ or ‘could haves’ that come with wondering if the task just completed was good enough. That’s the perfectionist in us rearing its ugly head.

Finally, stop babysitting other people’s monkeys. (Yeah, I’ve got some weird analogies.) We’re all ringmasters of our own circuses. After eight months of the craziest year I’ve ever seen, it feels like my 3-ring circus has been crammed into a single pup tent… lions, bears and elephants included. There’s barely enough room for the monkeys I carry on my own back, much less for other people’s monkeys. Just a colorful way of saying be careful which problems you try to help solve for other people. Being a solve-it-all will get us to the same unhappy place as being a do-it-all will.

Do-it-alls eventually become complainers because we’re so busy and no one ever helps us and we never get the credit we deserve. Got a little personal there, sorry. My mother tells me, “you kinda brought that on yourself,” and no truer words have been spoken. To me, anyway.

How about you? Can you spot the do-it-alls in your organization? Do them a favor and teach them how to be successful without trying to do it all perfectly. It’s a lifesaving skill that’s worth sharing.

It’s up to you, leaders… just not all of it.

Prohibition is Back

Welcome to the new Roarin’ Twenties!

The last Roarin’ Twenties was a decade marked by economic growth, technological advances, an increase in leadership opportunities for women, a society tired of war, fascination with material wealth, and a social media obsessed with sports and entertainment celebrities.

Déjà vu all over again?

Not to be a buzzkill, but we all remember how the last Roarin’ Twenties ended – with a stock market crash and the Great Depression. Let’s see if we can keep from repeating some of the mistakes this decade.

Lest I fail to mention Prohibition, I’d like to propose some Prohibitions in the workplace that will get the New Year off to a good start. No need for a Constitutional Amendment, just good leadership.

Prohibit hiring and promotion practices that reward butt-snorkelers and overlook hard-working members of the team. (The difference between brown-nosing and butt-snorkeling is depth perception.) My experience with this came mostly from the military, but it’s no less present in the corporate world. Promoting people who are better schmoozers than contributors or hiring people less qualified than some you already have has an outside effect on your top performers. It reeks of favoritism and is demoralizing to the team, and it is a great way to drive the best to another organization.

Prohibit making good doers into unprepared managers. Just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they’ll be a good manager. And that’s okay. But making someone who has not been developed as a leader a “Manager” is somewhere between risky and foolish. The other doers may put up with it for a while, but there’s a good chance they’ll start heading for the exit as soon as their spouse gets tired of the complaining. Instead, develop the high potentials who have the characteristics necessary to influence others to execute the company vision BEFORE they become supervisors and managers… and don’t stop. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: effective leadership development can’t be a one-and-done activity.

Prohibit making Feedback a dirty word. First of all, feedback is neither inherently good nor bad; it is simply factual information provided to an individual or group with the purpose of helping them grow and improve. It can contain critical information, but it doesn’t have to; letting people know what they’re doing right helps them grow and improve. The key is to give and take feedback often enough in a non-threatening environment that it becomes second nature.

And for heaven’s sake, if the company’s HR process for providing feedback is cumbersome or otherwise user-unfriendly, scrap it. If it’s only used once a year for compensation purposes, scrap it. If it’s only used to document sub-standard performance, scrap it. If it promotes a one-way diatribe instead of an honest conversation, scrap it. Get the idea?

Prohibit cookie cutter rewards systems. There are certainly money-grubbing exceptions, but for the most part, people want to feel valued for doing worthy work. It’s not always about getting a big paycheck (though it doesn’t hurt); there are plenty of ways to reward your folks. The key is communication and finding out what makes them feel rewarded. For some, it’s recognition; for others it might be time off. If money is their deal, a surprise bump in pay or unexpected bonus, or maybe even a charitable contribution in their name. Promotion consideration and leading a new project are also ways to let them excel at more worthy work. How do we know what makes them feel rewarded? Of course… ask them.

Prohibit making more work the reward for good work. Not saying don’t challenge your top performers with more difficult assignments, just remember that being an excellent worker is both a blessing and a curse. Stay vigilant for signs that someone is close to being maxed out or risk burn out. And never, ever give someone more work because someone else is skating by doing the minimum or less. Short of lashing someone in public, I can’t think of a quicker way to demoralize a valuable contributor to the organization.

These a just are few ways to get the year off to a good start with the team, because ultimately, it’s about them! If some of these prohibitions ring true where you work, talk to your folks and find ways to rid the workplace of the behaviors. Get the team’s buy-in by involving them in the solutions. The alternative is inviting disruptive turnover for preventable reasons. Not the best start to the new Roarin’ Twenties.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Leadership and the Devil’s Advocate: Saint or Sinner?

“Yes” men, “No” men, or some happy medium??  (“men” used for convenience, and is in no way gender-specific)…

Do we want our closest and/or brightest to agree with us, butter us up, lick our boots, kiss our derrière or any of a dozen other euphemisms for sucking up merely because it was our idea?

Or are we actively seeking constructive, challenging dialog??

Must we always have complete, obedient agreeance (not sure that’s a real word, but my baby sister Elizabeth always used it, so here it is), or do we really want diversity of thought?

Personally, I believe that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the final outcome or decision is always – ALWAYS – a better one.

Further, I’ll also opine that “diversity of thought,” particularly in leadership decision-making, is one of the only valid business cases for intentional, purposeful “diversity” in an organization.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about that crap-magnet Joe/Jane pain-in-the-butt employee who always disagrees, simply for the sake of disagreeing. Nor am I referring to those schmucks among us who are simply rabble-rousers looking for attention via a cause they can denigrate.

No, those are simply toxic jerks, and, like Bob, we should fire the a$$holes.

I’m talking about smart, well-intentioned people disagreeing and able to substantiate their disagreement with logic, data, and thought, sans logic’s evil twin, emotion.

I believe it’s a good thing. So, how do we get it to happen? Well, I’ll tell you how…

First, you must provide a safe forum. There must be an accepted arena, vehicle, or secret handshake, code-word, or ring-knocking ceremony where those with contrarian views know they can share.

And don’t be shy – advertise this forum.

Next, like birth control, there has to be a “safety-first” mentality. Those who may disagree must know (not just hear) that their well-thought, well-intentioned disagreement is welcome – in fact, expected – in the course of regular dialog. And that they won’t get shot between the eyes for doing so.

Finally, it’s gotta matter. Naysayers, contrarians, devil’s advocates – whatever the name – have to see their push-back accepted as input and occasionally alter decision-making some of the time if you really want it to continue.

Being “accepting” is good, but not good enough. You’ve got to be prepared to actually use their unpopular inputs. Go figure…

I once worked with a CEO who would frequently tell me that “If you and I always agree, one of us in unnecessary, and I’m keeping my job.”

Early diversity at its best. Thanks, Russ.

Sayonara to 2019

Kinda scary to think we’ve put another decade in the can. For the millennials out there, I don’t mean the trash can; it’s an old movie-making phrase that means we’re done. And speaking of a decade, last month marked the tenth anniversary of my retirement from the United States Air Force.

I’m not one who likes to live in the past, nor am I asking anyone to look back over the last decade and reflect. That would take introspection to the extreme sport level, and living with a mindset of “if only I’d…” is depressing.

Instead, I thought I’d look to next year and use some of the lessons learned in the 20-teens, and I learned a bunch! Ten years ago, I thought the corporate world would be a lot different than my experience in the military. Leadership-wise, I was wrong

And since we’re in the leadership development business, here are some things I’d like you to consider as we head into the next decade:

  1. In my experience, people join organizations they want to be part of… and then quit because their boss is a jerk. Or their boss’s boss is, or a dominant co-worker, or someone who’s making them feel bad about themselves. Usually, it’s the way they feel they’re being treated.

    Why do we think we’re treating our team well when we talk to them like we talk to ourselves? In 2020, let’s not do that. Let’s talk to other people like we’d talk to our grandparents, with respect and consideration for how they receive the message we’re sending. Which leads me to…

  1. In general, we humans suck at communication. We build trusting relationships through communication and our actions, and when we’re not intentional about our communication style, we screw it up. When we don’t communicate freely with our team, we’re screwing it up.

    You see, people want to know what they want to know, and when we don’t share information they think we’re hiding something. And that’s a dangerous road for your team to travel. If they think we’re hiding something, our integrity goes right out the window.

    Then there’s the delivery. Drive-by taskings aren’t appreciated. Blame-storming in meetings isn’t appreciated. Public shaming (yes, co-workers can hear over the cubicle partitions) isn’t appreciated. It’s good to remember that constructive criticism doesn’t have to be painful.

    I often hear the excuse, “I’m just being direct.” Yeah, right. I used the mantra, “Not everyone thinks I’m an asshole because not everyone’s met me yet” as an excuse to be direct, and it was never appreciated. We can ‘cut to the chase’ without ‘beating around the bush’ and still not come across as a jerk. Maybe we should try that in 2020.

  1. I’ve noticed that a lot of us tend to stop learning and developing when we feel like “they” (whoever “they” are) have stopped making us. Not when “they” stop expecting us to develop but when “they” stop making us. Nowhere is this truer than in leadership.

    If I had led my 500-person team the same way I led my 50-person team, chaos would have reigned. If I’d led my 50-person team the way I led my first 5-person team, there’d have been a mutiny. In case you’ve missed our thoughts on the topic, good leaders aren’t born any more than good athletes are. Without development and intentional practice, neither reach their potential.

    I thought I’d seen all the ways bad leaders cripple an organization when I left the military. I was wrong. In 2020, I’ll strive to continue to hone my leadership development and coaching skills to help others not continue the bad habits they learned as young supervisors.

  1. Finally, we all feel a huge amount of pressure and stress at the end of the year. Take one part holiday crazies on the road, one part delivering what the boss wants before close-out, and one part family stress to deliver the ‘”perfect” Christmas; shake vigorously in a holiday party atmosphere that you don’t feel like being part of; squeeze it all into your work clothes and go to the office.

    As managers, we pretend none of that affects us. As leaders, we need to admit (at least to ourselves) that we’re just human. And then we need to cut our team a break and acknowledge they’re struggling with the same things. Cutting your team a break when they’re struggling is one of the most powerful ways I know to build loyalty to your organization.

    In 2019, I learned again that when I act like I’m only human, my family is easier to get along with, my friends are easier to get along with, my clients are easier to get along with, and my co-workers are easier to get along with.

If you haven’t experienced that yet, maybe 2020 is a good time to try.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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