Simplicity: Thy Name is Decision Making

        — Keep it simple, stupid.

Okay, okay. I’m not calling anyone stupid, per se.

I just want us all to remember that usually the simplest course is the best course to take. Certainly it is usually the quickest and most efficient, and it prevents slow-downs in decision making that irritate our staffs and cost us in lost opportunity.

Occam’s Razor is the word child of a Franciscan Friar, William of Occam (does that make me Kevin of Spring or Kevin of Berchelmann?) Paraphrased, he said that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best. Fewer assumptions, fewer hypotheticals, fewer “meteor strike” what-ifs?

Yes, we do need a model for decision making. Something replicable, that can withstand pressures. Some form of consistent methodology to determine criteria or theories for making decisions. Why not choose the simplest? After all, it is the decision and the execution that hold real complexity. Must we also make the act of deciding complicated as well?

I think not. In fact, hell no is a better response.

In its truest form, decision-making is, well, simple. Identify a problem (something that needs deciding), determine that problem’s cause (since we don’t want to simply create the need for more decisions), develop possible solutions (potential decisions), then use some analysis method to determine risks, possible problems, and likely outcomes.

Then, decide.

The simplest explanation is often the best. Not always, but usually any methodology that leads us to faster, yet equally educated decision making is a good thing. Truth be told, our role as senior leaders is much more about making decisions than critically evaluating them beforehand.

Generally speaking, providing we have surrounded ourselves with solid people (there’s that “talent management” thing again), our decision making role is regularly reduced to choosing the most satisfactory options for those already intent on making an outcome successful regardless.

Given that, keep the process simple, eliminate undue assumptions and knock off the incessant ‘what-ifs’ that beleaguer those unwilling to act. After all, that’s not us, is it?

Think. Reduce. Decide.

After all, when you hear hoof beats… think horses, not zebras.

On Your Marks, Go!… Get Set

2021 is off and running

Kinda like Kevin Berchelmann described a business decision-making style in June’s At C-Level as “Ready, Fire, Aim!,” “On your marks, go, get set… ” is a planning style often used when preparing for the new year just after the nick of time. In past years, that style put us behind the eight ball initially, but we could recover with hard work and good leadership.

Guess what? 2021 won’t be like past years because the 2020 eight ball never stopped rolling. How we start the year depends mostly on our attitude: Is January 1, 2021 the 307th day of March 2020 (feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), or are there only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2021?

Good leaders know that no new year will be like last year – or the year before that or the years before that – and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. An easy measure of that in 2020 is how our long organizations took to go from meetings around the conference room table to virtually in front of a computer screen.

If ever a year was going to start with VUCA, 2021 is it.

Here are some changes we know we’ll have to deal with, so let’s be ready for the unknown:

  • The 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2021. A new Congress means new rules that will affect our business in new ways. Are we agile enough to pivot?
  • Our competitors will develop new ways of doing business that will give them a marketplace advantage. Do we have processes in place to develop new ways of our own?
  • We’re going to have personnel turnover – some painful and some cause for celebration. Have we prepared by developing successors?

On the other hand, some things that stay the same may still take us by surprise:

  • Political strife isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
  • We still have a global pandemic to deal with.
  • There will be economic uncertainty that will make the stock markets go up and down and affect our businesses.
  • My wife will always get her way when we have a difference of opinion (I’m a leadership consultant; we don’t have conflicts).

Bill George at Harvard Business School writes that a leader’s answer to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity in business can be found in his VUCA 2.0Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability – all traits of an effective leader.

So, where do we start in 2021? With something else that will be the same: the leadership basics that haven’t changed in a few millennia.

  • First, remember that our success (and the organization’s) depends on the people who work for us being successful. We can never forget who’s work keeps the day-to-day business operating. The majority of our effort should be focused on creating an environment where they can shine.
  • Set clear expectations. The Ambiguity in VUCA often starts with us not defining success for our team. We shouldn’t expect the results we were looking for if they don’t know what success looks like.
  • We can’t effectively lead someone who doesn’t trust us. If we aren’t positive and caring, or don’t have integrity or respect for the individuals who work for us, they will never trust us.
  • We have to get better at communication. Especially now when face-to-face communication is limited, our communication style needs to include a lot more listening than ever before. The people who work for us will have ideas for improvement and innovation long before we do (they probably already have them), so ask… and then listen for understanding to what they say.
  • Leading by example isn’t an option. When things get crazy (like they have been), we can’t expect our team to stay calm and focused if we don’t. We won’t have all the answers (we never have) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to admit it. And DON’T tell people to calm down! That never, ever works; re-focus them instead.

The world as we know it today won’t be the same as the world six months from now. Never has been and never will be. For our companies, it’s important that we hone the leadership skills to deal with the VUCA we are continually thrust into. For our people, it’s imperative that we don’t neglect the leadership basics in the process.

The eight ball’s already rolling. Are you set?

Fast is Good, Faster is Better!

            — Pick a lane, add speed

We need speed. Not the breakneck, uncontrolled, sitting-your-ass-on-a-rocket kind of speed, but the speed necessary to move quickly and smartly. Given consistent data and input, faster is almost always better than slower.

We’ve been stressed, haven’t we? New craziness pops up almost daily, certainly monthly. We feel justified in being somewhat overwhelmed, and at times that feeling can slow us down – or even grind us to a halt.

That’s not helpful, and we shouldn’t do it. We aren’t forced into it, we have options. Here are some suggestions when the pace of change feels like The Enterprise in a Federation wormhole…

  1. Play the cards you’re dealt. Yeah, I know, sometimes they suck. We’d like a different hand, some new cards. Suck it up, buttercup; they are what they are. It is what it is. Que sera, sera. Deal with it. Or my favorite, “be that as it may…”

In other words, take what you have, figure out how to make it work, then violently execute. Sometimes you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and take what you can. This is one of those times.

  1. Pick a lane. Add speed. This one sometimes gets a bad rap. There are those out there (they walk among us) who will tell you to slow down, move methodically, deliberately. Slowly. I say bullshit. Pick a lane, add speed. With consistent data and insights, speed trumps stalling. 100% of the time.

Some fast decisions hit the bullseye – great! Others act as tracer rounds so we can keep firing, each time getting closer and closer to our intended target/result. A tracer round you can see is a small win – take it, move on to the next. Quickly.

The faster you decide, the faster you can act. The faster the action, the more responsive you can be to change, both planned and “not-so-much.”

  1. Practice Predictive Resiliency. This is a new one, so if you haven’t been on the edge of your seat up to now (and you should’ve been), you’ll need to pay attention to this.

Resiliency is great. It’s a wonderful characteristic to have, but by nature it’s passive. Take a change or unexpected force, absorb it, then bounce back, no worse for wear, ready to meet that next change with some more springy emotions. That’s resiliency, and we’ve preached it for years. This is not that. Well, it’s a little of that, with a twist.

Predictive Resiliency is seeing the change coming, like the light of an out-of-control freight train, deciding what would work better for you that that, then pivoting with the train’s momentum, using it like a flywheel to accelerate in a better direction. Taking unplanned change and making it proactive by pivoting.

Sound crazy? It’s not. An example: Uber faced a near-fatal challenge in California, where the state passed a law making their thousands of contract drivers into employees overnight.

Never mind where you stand on the issue; Uber had a choice: accept the change and spring back gently, changing their business model entirely for a single state, or pivot hard – taking the momentum and public attention the issue was receiving and forcing a voter referendum. No passive resiliency here… it was Predictive Resiliency, pivoting from the passive into a “proactive reaction,” not an oxymoron in this case. It paid off for Uber.

There are myriad examples of taking anticipated change, seeing a more successful direction to go instead of the proposed change, then pivoting hard to execute. Try it sometime. You’ll like it.

And remember: Be Brazen. Grace and accountability can coexist.

Assuming Makes an… Well, You Get the Picture

Who out there knows the old saw about what happens when you assume?

Great. You can put your hands down. Yes, we all thought that was funny the first time we heard it – like when we were 12 – but please stop asking people that.

If we know we make an ass out of ourselves when we assume we know what someone else is thinking or how they’re feeling or what they want, why do we keep doing it? I guess I should have put assuming on last month’s list of prohibitions for this Roarin’ Twenties.

Here’s a recent example: I was asked by our volunteer coordinator, “Kevin, we want to show our volunteers how much they mean to us. What do you think about having a big breakfast for everyone?”

I replied, “They don’t want breakfast; they want a shirt so they feel like part of the team.” Undeterred, she matter-of-factly said, “We don’t have money for shirts, but we can buy everyone breakfast.”

The coordinator incorrectly assumed (as almost always happens) that everyone would feel rewarded and appreciated by eating a free breakfast. Even after being corrected, she still assumed she was correct.

News Flash: not everyone feels rewarded by the same token of appreciation.

A month later, the executive director asked me when I thought a good time to get the volunteers together for breakfast would be.

“Ummm… on the 12th of Never?”

Okay, that’s not what I said, although I wanted to. As the self-anointed appointed spokesman for the volunteers, I explained that while breakfast was a nice gesture, what they really wanted was a shirt like everyone else so they felt like part of the team.

Not surprisingly, I heard, “Yes, but the coordinator says we don’t have the money to buy shirts, but we all think a breakfast would be nice.”

Of course a breakfast would be nice… if you served it to me in bed.

But the last thing a sane person would want to do is to drive across town in this neck of the woods with the morning rush to eat a low-quality breakfast and then drive home. Or to lunch. Or to a happy hour – okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the drive home might be ill advised. What’s wrong with a shirt? Or a nametag, or a cubical sign, or a desk plaque… I’m not picky. But make it something that requires a little thought about what the individual or group would find meaningful.

The short points to my long story are these:

  1. If you want to express your appreciation for a job well done, genuinely express it as soon as you feel it. Not a pat on the head and a “good job” but an expression of sincere appreciation for a specific task done well or hard-won success.
  2. If you want to reward someone for exceptional performance or accomplishment – even with a small token of appreciation – do it publicly to add more meaning to making them feel like a valued member of the team. This assumes, of course, that they don’t mind being in the limelight, which leads to…
  3. If you want to give something meaningful to an employee you would hate to lose, ask him or her what that could be. A morning off maybe? A Friday afternoon off? Tickets to a sporting event? The movies? A play or ballet? Dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? The possibilities are almost endless! Just ask.

By the way, gift cards are nice, but if your employees are struggling for groceries or gas, that’s indicative of a different problem.

Other signs of assuming: “Would you mind…?” “Could you stay late to…?” “Can you come in this weekend to…?” “Did you remember to…?” “Did you fix the…” “Are you available to…?” “Do you have the information I need to…?” “Can you take care of this real quick?”  to all of which we assume the answers will be the ones we want to hear and not the reality of what’s going on inside the person’s head.

Those questions are asked so carelessly and thoughtlessly that it’s clear to the receiver that the person asking has no real idea or concern about the impact. There I go assuming again.

If any of this rings true in your organization, please put a stop to it, and if you see someone else making these kinds of morale-killing assumptions, please stop them.

After all, it makes someone look like an ass… and it’s not me.

How about it, leaders?

It’s up to you.

Officers Eat Last

There is a tradition, especially among our military’s ground troops, that officers eat last. I’ll let the Army and Marines argue about who started it, but woe be unto the uninitiated Airman or Sailor who gets in the chow line out in the field with ground forces before all the enlisted men and women have been fed. I’ve seen it in action many times, and sometimes it means the officers go hungry.

When an Air Force airplane with a big crew lands at the end of a mission, the crew doesn’t put the aircraft to bed and head to quarters (or maybe the club) until everyone’s finished with their post-flight duties. The pilot in command (a good one, anyway) doesn’t leave the rest of her team behind because she’s the boss; she’s willing to pitch in because she knows other, less employed, team members will follow her example to the benefit of the entire crew. If the officers aren’t going to eat last, at least they’ll all eat together.

Who knows how the Navy does it on ships. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about that.

So what’s my point? What could that possibly have to do with the way you lead your team?

Eating last – making sure the troops are taken care of first – is an outward display of servant leadership, and the phrase obviously has less to do with who eats when than it does about putting others first. And while it should start at the top (at the CXO – the Chief Whatever Officer in your company), it sadly often doesn’t.

But don’t use a selfish C-suite or company culture as an excuse to “overlook” opportunities to take care of others before you fill your reward plate (or coffee cup). Here are a few ways I’ve seen servant leaders really shine in the workplace:

  1. First, your team has to believe you care. If you don’t, servant leadership isn’t for you. They’ll know if you’re faking it. That being said, I’ve seen that approach work for a short period of time with the result being a well-intentioned supervisor growing into a leader who actually cared for her team.
  2. Most bosses are blissfully unaware of two things: their own shortcomings and when their team is struggling. Becoming more aware of both before they become butt-biters only requires the use of a clever communication tool we call talking. Not texting or emailing, but an old-fashioned, honest face-to-face conversation about how things are going. It’s one of the ways to show you care.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of compassion. We all have our own three-ring circuses going on outside the office, and it’s important to know when life’s challenges are affecting a team member’s performance. The return on cutting someone slack during a difficult period is huge with the payout being a more trusting and loyal employee.
  4. Don’t pretend you’ve had nothing but success. Share what you’ve learned in your time in the organization, not in a “this is how to do your job” sense, but the lessons learned through experience – good and bad – that will help your team struggle less to deliver excellence. That may sound like a no-brainer, but if more leaders helped their teams learn vicariously from the leader’s past mistakes (we’re all human, after all), leadership development consultants like me would have to find a new line of work.

We’ve reminded scores of leaders over the past years that they can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A servant leadership mindset is one of those ways a leader can keep from looking upwards into the organization for signs of his success and stay focused on ensuring his team has what it needs to deliver that success.

And while you’re at it, get used to “eating last.” Make being considerate of others a habit not just at the office but at home, in traffic, at the store – wherever you interact with other humans. If eating last becomes a way of life, the worst that can happen is that people think you’re a thoughtful, unselfish person.

No better time to try it than now, leaders.

It’s up to you.

Coaching Slugs …What if they just don’t get it??

Coaching Slugs… the uncoachable. Also sometimes known as:

  • Light’s on, nobody’s home.
  • She just doesn’t get it.
  • How’d he slip through HR?
  • The 80/20 rule…

Or, my personal favorite…

  • A waste of time.

As egalitarian and “fair” as we sometimes hope to be, there’s no getting around it — some employees can be a waste of our development time, and we should stop doing that the instant we realize that condition. Make an effort, to be sure, but get better at knowing when it’s time to fish or cut bait.

Perhaps they were mis-hired to begin with; perhaps they were promoted well past their ability to grasp new concepts; perhaps they simply don’t want to do what’s required… I don’t know, and at this stage I wouldn’t spend a ton of your time digging into the “why.” The “what,” is “I’m spending my time for no return, when I could be spending it on someone else for recognizable value.”

Not really much of a choice, is it?

Quality guru Joseph Juran said (loosely paraphrased) that we tend to spend 80% of our time on those things that deliver 20% of our aggregate value. I would argue that, when discussing employee performance, motivation, and one-on-one development or coaching, that figure is much closer to 90/10. Maybe even higher.

Really, how much time do you spend with your highest performers… your top 5%? I’m not talking MBWA face-time, drinks after work, or breakfast forced-marches. Nor am I describing time spent at those infernal time-wasters called “staff meetings.” I’m talking about working with that A-player one-on-one, investing your personal time, counsel and expertise, and making sure that those “A’s” receive more emphasis than the “C’s.”

Let’s be clear: time spent growing top performers is never, ever wasted time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for lesser beings.

I know this sounds harsh, and decidedly un-empathetic. I assure you it’s not. It’s simple pragmatism wrapped in what’s best for both organization and employee. Let’s face it, if you’re spending an untoward amount of time with an under-performing employee, it’s unlikely that same employee is “living the dream” at work.

Yes, we should do an appropriate amount of development for those employees who don’t quite “get it,” but seem to have both the wherewithal and the give-a-$h!t to grow significantly with some well-thought attention.  But be wary, critical, and skeptical; prepare to cut the cord the instant you realize you are repeating yourself, notice issues of ethics or integrity, or that the employee’s “light” just hasn’t “turned on.”

Remember, development — coaching, training, appropriate responsibilities — are a vital part of growing our future leaders. But they must bring a few things to the table that you simply cannot coach in.  You can’t train them to have a work ethic, for example. They must bring that with them when hired.  You cannot train them to be honest or ethical — someone well before you influenced that past repair.

And most important: some people, no matter how much we want to believe the best, just don’t have the intellect to handle the work at hand. I don’t mean high IQ scores; they just need to have enough gray matter to learn and perform the job at hand.

To quote that master of pithy responses, comedian Ron White, “no matter how hard you try… you can’t fix stupid.”

But you can share it with the competition.

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