Process beats promise any day…

One corner of my Performance Triangle is Process. These are what – and how – things happen within your organization. They include things that are formal, informal, in writing, unwritten, etc. Some of the more obvious include:
• Organizational structure
• Policies and procedures
• Existing culture, and maintenance of that culture
• The decision-making process
• The process for employment decisions and performance management

What you say you’re going to do, through mission statements, vision statements, verbal or written promises, or whatever, matters little if your processes can’t support that talk.

Your processes must support your talk.

In other words, to say that you intend to hire only the best – the top of the food chain, so to speak – yet your process for sourcing, recruitment and hiring is petty and insignificant, and managed entirely by someone outside the general management chain, creates a conflict.

You are saying one thing, but your words – your promise – are conflicted by your process. In other words, you don’t realy want that; you just like to say you want that. Sort of like the tired phrase, “People are our most important asset.” What people (employees and others) really hear is, “Blah, blah, layoffs, blah, blah, costly benefits, blah, blah…”

You get the picture.

Make sure your talk – the organizational promises you make – match your processes.

Hammers and Paint and Tile, oh My! …and renovations suck

Today marks day 81 of a 3-week home renovation project.

I hate everyone. Especially contractors.

Not hate really, though at a minimum, I am significantly miffed. We’ve been without normalcy at home for going on three months. As someone who works from that home, it’s no small diversion.

Fired first contractor, then lamented because the second one – though faster and more experienced – lacked many of the attributes held by the fired first contractor. Tidbits like honesty, reliability, and integrity, you know, small stuff. /s/

Partly my fault (described below), partly undependable contractors (again, below), but blame isn’t high on my list right now.

Now, it’s just get the damned thing done.

In all fairness, the initial time estimate was aggressive, and I knew it. It went downhill from there. But there are some solid leadership lessons to be learned from the depths of my pit of despair:

Expectations need to be clear, well communicated, and reasonable. I was solid on the first two, weak on the last one.

When someone overpromises, and you know it, have those iterative discussions where we work out a more realistic deliverable timeframe. Most people don’t want to under-deliver, but we allow many to over-promise.

We in leadership can become complicit in their over-promise/under-deliver death spiral.

Know that people will at times disappoint you. We’re all human (well, most of us – you know who I’m talking about), we all make mistakes, and showing some grace allows us, as leaders, to actually demonstrate some of that fancy empathy we’re always reading about.

Miscalculating a deliverable shouldn’t be grounds for a firing squad; it should, however, be a time for discussions, dialog, even negotiations. Now would be the time to get real, and our discussions must allow someone to feel comfortable “coming clean.”

Repeating from above, most people really don’t want to under-deliver; they simply wanted to show competence, gain our confidence, and demonstrate they can do what they promised. Unfortunately, when they “miss,” it can sometimes display just the opposite of those characteristics.

Don’t fall for “the next guy/gal will be better” trap. The first guy under-delivered. His work quality was great, he was reasonably dependable (he’s still a contractor, after all), but I never doubted that he had our best interests at heart.

He only became noncommunicative when it became clear he was going to miss his deadline, by a huge measure. That should have been a clear indicator for me to dive in, but I didn’t.

I had become complicit in his death spiral.

The second contractor was faster, clearly more experienced (and knowledgeable), but we always felt we had to ask him he right questions to get an obvious answer. It didn’t feel like he was our advocate.

We had taken for granted the first contractor’s positive traits, and exacerbated his weaknesses.

Don’t do that.

Having Courageous Conversations. And sooner rather than later.

The first contractor got in over his head; Traci and I discussed it, we made a light, non-specific comment or two to him, and then continued to stew about his slow delivery. It didn’t end well.

The lesson there is three-fold:

  • Know when you need to have those difficult discussions,
  • Have them at the onset of difficulties, not when you start getting perturbed, and
  • Allow the person the opportunity to correct based on the conversation.

Those difficult and courageous conversations are, well, difficult. It does take a measure of courage to dive in and get them done. But we need to do just that. And do it when we first notice something off-track.

Ironically, difficult discussions seem easier when we get angry, but that’s precisely the time we should not be having them.

Fast-forward to today.

I’m writing this as I prepare to go to my daughter’s house to have a few zoom meetings today and tomorrow. We rehired the first contractor (clean slate) who is now doing an incredible job and are keeping the second contractor on a short leash to make sure he does as promised with no corners cut.

Between the two of them, and us, we should be done in time for our beach trip that starts Monday.

Hopefully, that’s not just wishful thinking on my part. If it is, you’ll read part two next month…

Get a Real Job! …and make sure they know what you do

A couple of decades ago, my daughter accompanied me to my cubicle in the Pentagon as part of Take Your Child to Work Day. Pretty boring for an 11-year-old who observed that my entire morning consisted of “playing” on the computer, talking to my friends around the office and on the phone, and wandering around the 17 miles of corridors visiting with people in other cubicles about nonsensical things.

At lunchtime, we were crossing the 5-acre center courtyard looking for child-friendly food when she looked up at me and asked, “Dad, when are you going to get a real job?”

“A real job like what, Honey?”

Pointing to the hard-hatted workers repairing the roof, she knowingly replied, “like those guys up there.”

I’m sure she wasn’t the only one in my office that day without a clue how I really spent my time.

Ever wonder what some people in our organizations really do to earn their paychecks? I mean, besides transporting their coffee cup from one office to another, what do they actually do?

Of course we have.

On the flip side, do people in our organizations wonder what we get paid to do? Heaven forbid!

Because we’re leaders, most of us think we know exactly what each member or our team does, but we’re a little fuzzy when it comes to what our boss does. Which is odd, since we’re sure our boss doesn’t know what all we do to lead our teams, just like we’re sure our team members don’t appreciate all the effort we put in behind the scenes for their benefit. They probably think we spend our days chatting on the phone, playing on the computer, and visiting with people in other parts of the building.

In other words, it’s a phenomenon we talk about as if we’re not a part of the equation. Why is that? Why do we think we’re the only leader in the company who’s in the know?

And does it even matter?

It matters only if we care what kind of culture our organization has. If there is a lack of awareness about what others in the company are doing, it means we probably work for a company that isn’t transparent and isn’t preparing the next generation of leaders. It means we aren’t making sure our team members know where they fit into the overall strategy, and we might not even be sure where we fit in. It means we’re not empowering our people to do more than the minimum required to keep their jobs.

I’ve gotten pushback from almost everyone I bring this up to. The typical response: “I know exactly what my team does! And I know what my boss’s job is.”

And I throw the BS flag every time.

We may know what we expect of our teams and whether or not they deliver, but it’s not the same as appreciating the effort it takes them or knowing if we’re utilizing their true capabilities and capacity… even if we’ve had their job before. Same reason we don’t think our boss knows what we really do. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’re better leaders when we know what our teams are struggling with to be successful – and whether we’re challenging them to be even more successful. And we gain that understanding by (wait for it…) talking with them and not just to them.

We’re better leaders when we make sure people know how their performance and successes contribute to the company’s overall success. That’s part of making them feel valued for their efforts.

We’re better leaders when we empower our teams to take on greater responsibilities that prepare them for future challenges. Along the way, we usually find they can accomplish some of what we do, enabling us to focus some of our efforts elsewhere – like maybe how we can enable our boss to focus their efforts on others.

And we’re better leaders when we do these things without causing our teams to feel micromanaged or being seen as managing up. Remember, our success depends on the team’s success… and so does our boss’s.

Does any of this ring a bell? Can we be more selflessly engaged in people’s roles up and down the organizational structure?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Meetings Are For People Who Aren’t Too Busy

An old friend sent me a picture the other day of this blue ribbon that says, “I survived another meeting that should have been an email.” He obviously remembers how I feel about meetings.

Turns out you can actually buy the ribbons here, and I know a lot of bosses who should pass them out.

We leaders have got to get a handle on the endless parade of time-wasting, morale-draining meetings we expect our people to sit through!

Routine, regularly scheduled meetings – the ones that are on the calendar until the end of time – are the worst! They typically involve endless droning around a table about activities that only one or two people in the room care about. When the boss at the head of the table tolerates such time wasting, the expectation is that everyone has to say something, and we’ve all experienced the guy who’s a little too fond of his own voice.

A bunch of years ago, everyone in my directorate was required to attend a weekly staff meeting like the one I described above. I used to tuck a couple of Sudokus in my notebook to make it look like I was taking notes (I know, not setting a good example). One week, I asked the director if I could skip the meeting if I was too busy. He said, “Sure.” I never went again.

  Later, talking with a senior government leader about making meetings more productive, I got some pushback on my value judgement. He said, “It’s the only time we all get together. How else will everyone find out what the others are working on?” I remember an executive at the highest level of the Department actually saying, “The daily meeting’s not for you; it’s for me to find out what everyone’s doing,” as if there a throne at his end of the table.

Trust me, there are far better ways to connect the people who need information with the people who have information. If you’re a boss and doubt what I’m saying, give this to your people and ask for their thoughts.

Productive meetings don’t happen by accident. We would see a dramatic improvement in Return On Time Spent In Meetings (ROTSIM – a new metric?) if we try these proven steps:

Put someone (preferably someone who values efficient use of time) in charge of the agenda. Meetings without agendas usually end up being free-for-alls. If we absolutely have to have a routine meeting to update the boss, let’s make it clear in advance that no one brings anything except their most critical issues that a majority of people around the table really need to know about. Any issues that only the boss and the person speaking care about should be handled one-on-one or in an email.

Get rid of as many routine meetings as you can. I was once part of an organization that actually tracked the number of meetings attended as a performance metric. Really?? Instead, try only having meetings when there is something to decide. Have clear objectives, not open-ended ones like “Discuss employee engagement.” Send pre-work to the attendees so they can come to the table as an informed participants, not as sponges.

No marathon meetings! People lose focus and creativity when held hostage for more than an hour or two, especially after lunch. If need be, break the agenda in half and have two shorter meetings appropriately spaced.

Finally, make sure someone’s keeping track of decisions and deferred issues. Make it a written record, to include who is responsible and a deadline for each. Make information “due-outs” part of the pre-work to speed up decision making in the next meeting.

Did I strike a nerve with anyone? Any meeting fans out there? Might as well start ordering blue ribbons.

Leaders know how to improve ROTSIM. How about you?


10 Client Lessons from 2021, PART DEUX

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.
— Aristotle

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part series

It’s interesting… this 2-part series has just ten client lessons learned from 2021. I could double that number with little effort. Helping and watching clients grow, learn and succeed creates an incredible learning environment for me.

In Part 1, I remarked on the following lessons learned:
1. Culture is everything.
2. Intellect, purpose, and leadership are key.
3. Metrics without a system are meaningless.
4. High functioning teams disagree.
5. Low-hanging fruit creates early wins; allow grace with future misses and missteps.

Part two has another five lessons, all picked up as I work with, observe and assist clients. These are a bit more personal, and deal with our actionable behaviors.

Some are simple lessons that just needed reminding, others are breakthrough processes, at least for that particular executive or team. Let’s get started…

6. Before any reaction from a leader, always ask “to what end?” Zig Ziglar once wrote, “Take the high road – there’s a lot less traffic.” Often we get smack dab in the middle of a contentious situation, and simply forget why we’re there in the first place.

Our goal in any situation, especially when emotions are starting to become a key part of every conversation, should be to attain the best available result (note I did not say simply “best result) while maintaining our credibility, the mutual respect of all parties and the longer-term relationship. Let’s unpack this a bit…

“The world is watching,” a phrase first used as part of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s, is instructive here. People are watching how we deal with the totality of the situation. It’s not enough to be right; those around us keeping an eyeball on our actions also want us to do right.

Why fire someone when you can let them resign? (There are exceptions to this, but few)

Do I really need that apology?

Am I forcing a decision that doesn’t need forcing?

Do I want to win, or do I want to change someone’s behavior? (Ask yourself this one a lot)

To what end? is a great question to ask as you feel yourself being sucked into the quagmire of tit-for-tat and one-upmanship.

Don’t go there. Stay on the high road. Keep your leadership behavior elevated and maintain your presence and credibility. You can actually win big by allowing someone else to enjoy a small victory of their own.

7. Poor communication can defeat effective leadership. Announcements, follow-ups, rules changes. Messaging is one of the more important parts of leadership, particularly at the senior-team level. It does us no good to do great things and then screw it up with the delivery.

In messaging to teams, large and small, plan, prepare and rehearse. Don’t try to use a simple message to also “remind everyone to sign up for…” or other such nonsense. Keep focused on the issue; short, direct and positive.

Put on your cynic hat and ask yourself how someone could object to the message or messaging and be prepared to adequately address those objections.

We frequently manage to irritate people with little effort on our part. Let’s not add insult to injury by irritating them when making an otherwise-positive announcement.

8. If you are forever saying “I don’t have time,” you’re likely in over your head. The best leaders have time. Yes, you read that right – you have the time, particularly for those employees who need you. If not, you’re in the wrong line of work.

When an employee sticks their head in your office and says, “I know you’re busy, but do you have a minute?” They are actually telling you that you seem too busy for them, meaning their interruption was all that much more difficult (I’m not talking about jaw-jackin’ John who drops in several times each day just to waste time – that’s for another article on another day).

One of the key behaviors of those demonstrating real executive presence is the appearance that they have ample time to invest whenever necessary. Those with presence don’t seem to be spastic and harried all day, a slave to both their calendar and current raging fires.

They seem calm and in control and are masters of their time. They seldom, if ever, offer “I don’t have the time” as an excuse, nor do they appear too busy to have that discussion.

Did I mention they seem clearly in control?

9. If you’re planning to grow, but not building your bench, you’re planning to fail. Most fast-growth efforts become stymied from lack of leadership, not resources.

  Now, I realize my bias in this conversation, but hear me out. Organizations looking at growth, particularly significant growth, are all awash in planning and such. Flip-chart-slinging-strategy sessions with 10-12 company execs and influencers, good chow (pre-apocalypse, anyway) and maybe even drinks at dinner.

The plans… they are a-flyin’.

Capital dollars resourced? Check.

Recruitment plan? Check.

Facility preparations? Check.

Leadership bench availability? Nah, we’ll wing it.

Wait… what??

If you believe your plans – those 3-ring binders represented by endless slide decks – why the hell aren’t you planning for your growing leadership needs? Think you’ll just wish hard, rub the lamp, click your heels together and boom! Leaders everywhere, all ready to get to work and manage your newfound, hard-fought growth?

News flash, Einstein. Not gonna happen.

Plan for growth by building your bench. If we develop existing and potential leaders for potential growth, there’s no downside. Either we need them and promote them, or we have better trained leaders in existing roles.

Hard to see a downside here. Planning includes leadership planning.

10. Grace and accountability can coexist. You may have heard before, but my most successful clients continue to reinforce the concept.

This has turned in to my mantra of sorts.

This whole bit about how holding others (and ourselves) accountable is mean-spirited or somehow offensive needs to go the way of the $1 cup o’joe. It just ain’t so. At least, it doesn’t have to be so.

This is the crux of the matter. Holding ourselves accountable isn’t narcissistic, it’s just pulling our weight.

Expecting accountability from others isn’t aggressive or forward, it’s compassionate, caring and kind. It’s knowing that we all do better when we expect the best from everyone.

Demonstrable empathy is a true example of successful leadership.

Empathy, at its core, is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling; taking it further, empathy includes caring for other people and having a real desire to help them. And one of the best ways to pull that off in leadership is to be clear with expectations, vicious about providing resources and support, then creating the environment where we hold each other accountable for achieving what we set out to do.

Our ultimate goal is to help each other – to steal from Army recruiting – Be all we can be. Be the best we can be.

For a leader, it means bringing kindness, empathy, and respect; It means using those as levers to help others succeed, to grow and Improve.

Grace means courteous good will. Sometimes even unmerited assistance.

Accountability means personal ownership of a specific expectation or result.

Grace and accountability can coexist.

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: No Bite to a Leader’s Evaluation

By Kevin D. Ross evaluating_leaders_wolf_sheeps_clothing

I’ve never seen an annual performance evaluation that was worth half the time it took to fill it out. That’s especially true when it comes to evaluating the leaders in our organizations. Have you ever wondered why we even do them?

When we don’t assess a leader’s leadership, we continue to promote weak leaders that are doing more harm to our people and organizations than good. The evaluation is like a sheep in wolf’s clothing: weak and pretending to be something it’s not.

Most companies have an evaluation system to justify the subjective decisions the boss is going to make in the first place. HR may not like that statement, but damned near everything about an evaluation is subjective. What we measure is subjective, how we measure it is subjective, and how we weight that measure is subjective. And then we pretend to make turn it into something objective by assigning a number to it.

Then we use it, not for developmental purposes, but to justify a salary and an end-of-year bonus. We kid ourselves into thinking it’s meaningful for the receiver when it’s anything but.

evaluating_leaders_ Except for the money it represents.

I only had to suffer through 27 of those evaluations in my Air Force career (along with another dozen “training reports,” equally as bogus), and not one of them made a bit of difference in my progression up the leadership ladder. And none of them gave me a single developmental goal for the coming year, and none told the whole truth about what an annoying SOB I was (they used words like tenacious). Most just said I didn’t get the soles of my boots wet when I walked on water.

Okay, that last part was because I wrote so many of them myself.

We all get asked for our self-assessment in preparation for our annual feedback session, so we provide the inputs in a format that exactly fits the form the boss has to fill out. Seems like a no-brainer. I once got a boss at the Pentagon to sign off on a bottom line that said, “This guy’s so good I should be working for him.” His boss gave it serious consideration.

Why can’t we just use the evaluation for what it is and grade what’s important for leaders in the first place… leadership?

Sure, there are areas we want a leader to be successful in like financial success, goal achievement, innovation, internal and external processes, etc., but where and how does a leader’s leadership get evaluated so that developmental feedback can be part of that dreaded annual meeting? Stop for a minute and consider your own process to see if you can find a real leadership measurement in the results.

Do we just give leaders credit for the successes of their teams? Probably. That’s how the system works… at least evaluating_leaders that’s how I’ve always seen it done. And regardless of the number scale we use, there are only two possible outcomes: meets expectations or doesn’t.

The system won’t get better until we as the leaders’ evaluators are more involved (and I don’t mean in a micromanagement sense) in learning how a leader’s day-to-day behavior and performance affect the team’s performance. And how, leaders of leaders, do we do that?

By talking to people, that’s how.

I’m not suggesting a complicated and time-consuming method for collecting subjective “data” about the leader. I’m suggesting that we have a few 15-minute conversations with some of the people being led. We’ve written about Stop-Start-Continue before, and that’s a good method, but any way we can discern how their leadership behaviors – trust, ethics, integrity, communication, decision-making, inspiring others, etc. – are shaping their team and its success is better than what we’re doing now.

If we want to help a leader develop, we have to give him or her meaningful feedback about their performance as a leader. Sound pretty basic, doesn’t it?

I propose a leadership evaluation form that has two parts: meets or doesn’t meet expectations and developmental feedback. Tell him or her what behaviors they’re doing well and what behaviors could use some improvement. (And maybe set some leadership developmental goals for the coming year?) That would certainly be more useful that the way we do it now. evaluating_leaders_evaluation_form

That idea will never make it past HR, but it’s how we should help leaders lead and, in turn, help our organizations succeed.

Feedback? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Because it’s up to you, leaders.


At C-Level Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive our newsletter jam-packed with info, leadership tips, and fun musings.

You have successfully subscribed!