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.

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.


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.

Span of Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just some thoughts…

Fish or fowl?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspired or Not, Here You Come!

 “Leadership is about influence and inspiration.” – Everyone Who Knows Anything


Who has the most influence on the mood in your workplace?

If you’re part of the leadership – formal or informal – you do.

Especially if your mood reveals your anxieties about the organization or job security, or your lack of compassion for those struggling to meet your expectations.


In one of my favorite strips ever (, Calvin sums it up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little bit.”

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Around the mid-point of my Air Force career, a mentor remarked one day, “You’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” After he had my 8-year-old daughter explain what a Marsh-wiggle was, we talked about the effect it was having on my Airmen. I got his point, and I’d like to think I’m remembered differently by those who served with me in my later years.

Like leading by example, you don’t have a choice about impacting the office climate with the mood you’re emoting. You may not be aware that you’re doing it, but that’s a matter of your emotional intelligence, not reality on the ground.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty to evidence to debunk that; but from the C-suites to the referent leader far down in the organization, others are taking their positive and negative emotional cues from you. This is anything but new information, and yet we could all benefit from the occasional friendly reminder.

A huge part of a leader’s job is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. You make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t think you’re inspired yourself. Reflect for a minute on a couple of the best leaders you’ve known – were they positive and encouraging in a way that made you want to do more and better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner show worn places in the veneer covering their anxiety?

Okay, here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion you do – regardless of whether you’re bothered by something work-related or something that happened outside the office – do people ask you what’s wrong? If not, you should be worried. It means they’re either used to you being in a bad mood, or you’re not as approachable as you should be.

If that strikes too close to home, stop it. Get your fire back… people need to believe that you like being their leader.

I can’t guarantee your motivation and authentic positive outlook will fill your workplace with unicorns, butterflies, and rainbows. But it won’t hurt. On the other hand, I can assure you that your dour mood directly affects your employees’ morale and engagement.

Your folks deserve your best. Are you giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

We Need Reinforcements… Send in the Leaders!

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just do it…