Thursday, April 25, 2013

Knowing Less Can Be More

         I was in meeting this week with an executive reviewing his career path. He mentioned that he came to his current company from a completely different industry. We discussed the difficulty he faced of not knowing the details of the operations he was now responsible for. But there is a huge upside of being unable to tell people how to do things. It gives you a built in immunity to avoiding Ego Trap 4 – Not Letting Go of Control. The leader who falls into Ego Trap 4 chooses to stay involved at transactional levels, feeling that a hands-on approach is their responsibility if they know more about something than anyone else. Although this is an understandable response, the impact of a leader who is deep in the weeds often results in hindering the team’s ability to solve problems independently. Not knowing the nitty gritty details of everything forces you to delegate more, let go of control, and allows room for better decision making.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Leadership Credibility

Leaders with credibility are self-aware. Blind spots are our stumbling blocks, our bad habits that
hold us back from being the kind of leader we aspire to be. Resolve to take a risk this year and learn
how to lead from the ones who matter most – those following you.
Consider the following behaviors that crush leadership credibility and employee motivation
(trends uncovered through employee focus groups and surveys across industries and levels):

§ Lack of direct feedback Telling others around the person or saying nothing at all.
Common employee complaint:
“You can tell they are unhappy with me but won’t talk to me directly about it”

§ Solitary decision making Making decisions that impact others without soliciting their feedback.
Common employee complaint:
“This directly affected my job but yet they didn’t think it was important to ask me what I think”

§ Talking out of both sides of your mouth Being hypocritical, contradictory or overly political.
Common employee complaint:
“Mixed messages”

§ Forgetfulness Forgetting conversations and instructions given. Poor listening skills.
Common employee complaint:
“I have to take notes just to be sure I can prove later we had this conversation”

§ Unpredictable/ Reactive Crisis mentality, often adopting the reactions of others.
Common employee complaint:
“We’re headed one direction today, we’ll be headed the opposite direction tomorrow”

§ Fairweather boss A fan one minute, a critic the next.
Common employee complaint:
“You have their support until it becomes unpopular”

§ Unrealistic or assumed expectations Expecting others to possess the same work ethic or
assuming unspoken expectations will be met.
Common employee complaint:
“I failed at something I didn’t even know I was being evaluated on and never got the chance to
discuss it”

§ Not understanding their employee’s jobs Assuming credibility can be earned without
understanding the inner workings of the team.
Common employee complaint:
“If they had any idea what we do they would make better decisions instead of making our jobs

§ Breaking promises/ poor follow through Unreliability in all its ugly incarnations.
Common employee complaint:
“They hold us accountable but when it comes to them there always are exceptions and excuses. ”
Leadership behaviors that build credibility and employee motivation:
·       Assuming the best and delaying judgment
·       Reliability in word and deed
·       Soliciting their input in brainstorming and problem solving
·       Challenging them to think outside their job description
·       Taking a genuine interest in employees as individuals
·       Delegating learning opportunities not just problems
·       Laughing at yourself and fessing up when you blow it
·       Encouraging creativity
·       Giving others the freedom to “fail forward”
·       Operating from a hope of success rather than a fear of failure
·       Asking “how am I doing?”
You can make great strides in the coming year toward becoming the kind of leader you
most admire.
The first step is moving out of your comfort zone and asking for feedback on how others see you
modeling these behaviors. Learning about how others perceive you will reveal ways you can be
more effective and is surprisingly liberating.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Opening the Kimono

A good friend of mine has this great expression he uses just before sharing something private or personal, “I am going to open the kimono here…”

One of my coaching clients was also struggling with being transparent about his true thoughts and feelings with me. And I understand it, because it feels scary and vulnerable to open that part of us up to someone else who will likely judge it and could exploit the information to use against us. And I loved his version of the kimono expression once he decided to be forthright with me: “It’s like when you have a new girlfriend and you just have to get naked in front of her for the first time and get it over with.”

I am personally learning some wonderful lessons in vulnerability from Brené Brown ( in my own life, and am encouraging leaders to use the concept of self storytelling in their daily work. When I suggest that they open up and be more authentic, imperfections and all, they hesitate.

Some leaders worry that they will be seen by their employees as vulnerable, weak, or flawed if they reveal that they need help or are struggling with self-doubt. Others resist the discomfort of sharing challenges because it comes with potential criticisms that can be painful or embarrassing. Some have decided that leadership is an ego game and they subconsciously avoid any risks to their appearance of confidence. And I will admit, the result of self-disclosure is often counter-intuitive. But, what most employees report to me is they most often respect and appreciate the leader who demonstrates the humility that comes with telling their story, good and bad, struggles and successes, even more.
Time to start telling your story.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Above the Rules

           It was open enrollment time (when employees have to select their health insurance plan and other benefits) at a regional assisted living company, and one of the owners, Peter, was given the paperwork to make his selections. Unfortunately, the paperwork sat on Peter’s desk for weeks so the VP of Human Resources had to remind him several times that the deadline was approaching. Still the forms were not turned in. Fearful that Peter would miss the deadline completely and lose his and his family’s health insurance, the VP of HR went to another owner and asked for her help in nudging Peter along. When Peter’s business partner asked him about it, Peter exploded. “I shouldn’t have to do this sh#*. I am a f-ing owner!”

 Everyone understood that paperwork was not on Peter’s ideal “to-do” list, but the reality was that no one could select Peter’s personal health coverage but him. His adolescent-like reaction was not the most becoming response an owner could give to a task that every other employee in the company was also asked to do, with the exact same deadline and consequences for non-compliance.  In reacting like he did—without self-awareness or self-control—Peter failed to ask himself what kind of example he was setting for the organization. As his ego took hold, he forgot about everyone else on the team. Of course, word got out about the incident and team members did take notice. The negative consequences were more than Peter looking bad. Employees now had implicit permission to not take required tasks from HR seriously. So, the question was, what would happen if every employee had the same attitude as Peter? What kind of company would Peter have?

Leaders like Peter believe that the very rules everyone else in the organization has to follow don’t apply to them. It’s another manifestation of Trap 6. Ego in this case says, “I’m special.” Ego says, “People know these aren’t my strong suits so they’ll give me a pass.” In reality, although the role of leader may come with special power and privilege, the leader who abuses that power runs the risk of unintended consequences. Choices and behaviors may get mimicked, roll downhill, and reach a critical mass so that the leader no longer has control over the organizational culture. Late to every meeting? A leader shouldn’t be surprised if the team slacks off on the punctuality thing. Talking about team members behind their backs? Maybe it’s not so hard to figure out why the team is acting catty and dysfunctional. The organizational culture is often a reflection of the behavior at the top, for better or worse.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bonuses and Blind Spots

David was a small business owner who ran a product testing company. He was a nice guy—very hardworking and earnest—and said he had brought me in to help him with some productivity issues. Even though he had an experienced workforce with tenure, he shared with me that they were having issues with long cycle times. These caused missed customer deadlines, increased errors resulting in rework, and overall employee malaise.  David had only eight employees so I met with each one of them, asking a series of questions to try and uncover what was really going on. Several of them mentioned a bonus they had received but no one could tell me the criteria required to earn one.  Typically, a bonus would be based on a profitable quarter or year, a reward for extra effort or productivity, or as an annual form of recognition. I assumed it was one of those things.

At the end of the day I met with David and asked what the bonus metric was. He looked at me and said, “I like to use bonuses as a spontaneous motivation technique so I don’t use any formal criteria.” “Oh?” I said, a bit surprised and also intrigued. “So give me an example of the last few times you paid out a bonus.” He said, “I just pay everyone a bonus when I sense that morale is down.”  For anyone who understands classical behavioral conditioning and the concept of reinforcement, it only takes a few minutes for it to register that David is rewarding his employees for acting demoralized and being mopey, and reinforcing that behavior in the process. Thanks to authors like Daniel Pink ( and Teresa Amabile (, we now know that pay is not the key performance motivator. So, not only hadn’t David gotten that memo yet, but was actually rewarding his people for the exact behavior he wanted less of. It was a perfect formula for poor results.

Sadly, when I explained to David that I would need to work directly with him, and not just his employees, in order to bring about the organizational improvements he sought, he refused, insisting that the problems lay with his employees, not him. Although he was an otherwise nice guy, his ego was clearly in the way. For obvious reasons, I did not accept the work and can only wonder how his organization is doing today. There was more to David’s organizational challenges than the random bonuses, but my initial research into his firm showed me that this, along with a few of his other decisions, played a significant role in his employees’ motivation and performance. Although David could not see it, he was having a serious and negative downstream impact.

Keeping your EQ sharp will help you notice your own tendency to engage in behavior that may have unintended downstream impact (self-awareness) and to ask yourself how exactly this behavior may affect the team (empathy). Just as important, a sharp EQ provides you with the self-control needed to make conscious choices about when to follow through on your instincts and when to investigate or temper them to keep work flowing and organizational objectives intact.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Could This Be From Your Employee?

This is text from an actual letter sent by a hotel employee in a national chain to every single distribution list in the company’s email system. Yep, it went to thousands of employees. Find ways to ignore the needs of your employees and I guarantee you, they will find a way to ignore yours. Whether the employee is right or wrong, this is not the way you want to get a resignation letter.  (Of course, all the names have been changed)…

Dear Mr. Smith,
I would like to thank you for successfully transforming a place in which I once looked forward to coming to everyday into an unnecessarily frustrating and stressful work environment.  Although I have thoroughly enjoyed working with my colleagues, and I greatly appreciate and cherish many of our kind and understanding guests, your amateurish management style has made this work environment increasingly less tolerable.

Among the many issues that we encounter daily, agents have been forced to work with equipment that constantly breaks down making our job difficult, if not at times impossible, to perform.  I personally cannot remember the last time I have had a workday in which all of the equipment used by agents and guests worked properly.  Any attempts to voice our frustrations have fallen on deaf ears and has been met with empty promises and deadlines that come and go without any long-term resolutions.  We are also left to face frustrated guests who complain about these technical failures, which we as agents have little if any power to fix on our own.  Your employees have handled  these circumstances with as much patience and professionalism as could be expected in such situations, but the responsibility of management above all else should be to ensure that workers have the resources  necessary to perform the most basic functions of their jobs.
Meanwhile, even as logistical operations remain in a state of disarray, you seem to have become increasingly obsessed with policing employee behavior and implementing an endless list of petty rules and regulations.   Such misguided uses of power and resources has contributed to a very uncomfortable work environment in which employees are paranoid that every glance at a non –work related website, or moment of leisure conversation with fellow coworkers is being closely monitored and documented.  Rather than creating an environment conducive to maximizing customer satisfaction and retention,  your focus has been on monitoring employee behavior, trying desperately to catch us doing something wrong, meanwhile failing to provide the tools necessary for us to most effectively perform our job responsibilities. 

In addition, the tactless manner in which you have dealt with agents in the past is indicative of the lack of respect and genuine concern you have for the employees entrusted to you.  You have carelessly thrown away the best agents as if they are disposable and easy to replace, while senselessly promoting the most useless supervisors to even higher, more unmerited positions of authority.  These remarkably irresponsible and illogical decisions are made hastily and agents are then left on their own to deal with the aftermath.  Such glaring incompetence and mismanagement is unbecoming and unacceptable of one placed in a position of leadership such as yours. 
It has become increasingly obvious that you have no clue as to how to effectively manage or communicate with your employees.  I won’t pretend to understand by what crime against logic you were able to obtain the position of power you currently abuse, but I would not hire you to run my bath water let alone trust you to run any type of business successfully.  Just in case you still have yet to process the intended purpose of this letter, allow me to officially offer my resignation from my current position effective immediately. 

To my fellow colleagues, it has truly been a pleasure to work with you on a daily basis.  Any successes and accolades that the hotel has achieved have been solely because of your efforts, often in spite of the inadequate management you have had to endure.  You are a highly intelligent and talented group of individuals and I only hope that one day you will be empowered with leadership worthy of your abilities; management that is competent enough to recognize and best utilize your talents for the betterment of the hotel as well as your own professional development.  I wish you all the best in both current and future endeavors.
Warmest Regards,

J Smith
Former Overnight Front Desk Agent

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

ABC’s in Wine and Technology

Last week I spent time out visiting clients on the West Coast. Two different people on two different days used the term “ABC”. The first was an employee at a winery where I was facilitating a day of teambuilding. After our day’s session, I was lucky enough to get to do a wine tasting. He asked me what type of whites I liked and I said, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. He said he had a lot of people come in the tasting room who were “ABC” drinkers. What’s that? I asked. He said, “Anything But Chardonnay”.
The next day I was doing a coaching session with an executive in a technology company and I asked him what his strategy was for approaching his upcoming appraisal and he said, “I always follow the ABC method”. I almost said, “Anything But Chardonnay?” but instead looked at him quizzingly. He smiled and said, “Always Be Closing.”

Both of those ABC’s work well I think.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jetting In and Out

I was getting some feedback for one of my coaching clients, a senior executive who just took over a new operations unit. As part of his onboarding, he went out to visit several of the plants he is now responsible for. The feedback from the field was, "He jetted in with his entourage, did a quick meeting with us and jetted out."

This is typical, I know he is busy, executives always have places to be. But think of the power you have as an executive when you make the time to visit with employees and tour the facility. Think of the impact of speaking from notes instead of with a fancy PowerPoint presentation. Think how much more approachable you appear when you ditch the entourage...

What if instead of talking about the company expectations, you talk about the work of your employees at that location and how much of a difference they make? What if you can connect the corporate goals and objectives to what the front line technician does every day? What if you take time to have lunch with your top talent - the most engaged employees that you cannot afford to lose?
These are small adjustments with a huge payoff.