What is Wrong With Average?

 

Many companies have a grossly flawed understanding of what “average” means (there is a very lame pun in that sentence if you are paying attention).

I listened to a speech by a district manager coaching new employees a while ago. The manager told his team, “I don’t expect you to strive for average results. I expect the best. If you are just achieving company average, you probably won’t be here very long.” The employees nodded enthusiastically (the appropriate and expected reaction), and promised to never be anything so lowly as “average”. The manager explained at length the company has set targets to meet, but employees should not try to meet them. Their goal should always be to exceed the company’s goals. That is how employees can expect to move up.

I have heard and read similar rhetoric from managers and leaders throughout my career.

In my position as Manager of People Development for a large LTL trucking company, I once found myself at odds with Human Resources and other leaders, debating how a proper Performance Review should look. Like many companies, ours maintained a policy of viewing employees rated as “average” with a certain disdain. “Average” employees are less likely to receive raises.

The thing is, most companies, including that one, have no definition of what “average” actually is. Managers, instructed to give “objective” reviews, are expected to make personally biased guesses based on their feelings about a particular employee at the time of the review. If the manager is having a bad week, or if the employee has recently made a costly error that is fresh in the manager’s mind, the review is probably not going to be good news for the employee, even if they are otherwise commendable. Slackers know, too, they must be extra cautious to be in their manager’s good graces around review time… but the rest of the year… well… they are still slackers.

Worse, managers have learned to navigate and flourish in this dysfunctional system. If a manager wants to push for a raise for a favored team member, the manager knows to rate the employee’s performance as “above average”. My guess is, the majority of employees at most companies are “above average” employees. That means “above average” is actually the average.

What company leaders, managers, and laborers often do not understand is if we have an “average” category, then that is the category where MOST people should fall, by default. It is, after all, um… average.

By definition, most people are average (“average” is “the statistical norm”). Managers routinely demand their employees be above average, superior, winners, rock-stars even. I understand the sentiment, but if everyone is “above average”, then what is “average”?

“Average” does not mean “bad” but we have built a system insinuating it does.

The district manager coaching his new team probably meant to say, “Do your best”, and that is what he should have said if that is what he meant, but to be honest, “Do your best”  is an equally meaningless phrase. Instead, he could have told them exactly what their goal was (and that goal should have aligned with the company’s goal; if the company set its goals so low that the intended outcome was for every single employee to surpass them, then they have not actually set any goals…). It is too bad his team members were left with a flat message and no actual instruction or motivation to legitimately succeed.

Companies run from average like it is a disease, but average is consistent, reliable, and acceptable. There will always be rock-stars who can surpass average, but that is what makes them rock-stars. If everyone is a rock-star, then no one is, because “rock-star” becomes the average. Rock-stars, by the way, come with problems, too—they burn out or they fail dramatically because they are willing to take risks to blow past average. Most employees are unwilling to take risks that might jeopardize their jobs or their income—they are average. Rock Stars are great, but it is at our own peril as leaders to overlook the quietly consistent and reliable workers that are the backbone of our business.

Average does not mean “under-achiever” and it is about time we started thanking our employees for maintaining the company average instead of admonishing them for meeting our goals and being average.

 

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Do You Punish Employees for Innovative Thinking?

 

I once took a typing test as part of a job interview at Wayne State University. I didn’t get the job and the experience reminded me how tradition and paranoia can destroy productivity and creativity.

Wanda, my interviewer, explained I would be taking a typing test and a passing score was at least 40 words per minute. No less.

I said, “Okay, 40 words per minute is no problem for me, except… I do not know how to type on a QWERTY keyboard” (the standard keyboard most of us  have learned to type on).

I taught myself to type using the Dvorak keyboard, which is designed for speed and efficiency. I explained the Dvorak keyboard is available on almost every computer (you can switch your keyboard layout by changing some settings in the Control Panel). “If it’s okay with you” I said, “I can change the keyboard layout for the test and promptly change it back as soon as I am finished.”

 

Qwerty vs Dvorak- 030111

 

Wanda was unsure if she should allow an applicant to mess with computer settings. She did not ask how I intended to change the keyboard layout; she did not check with anybody to see if it was okay to allow the request. She simply said, “Uh-uh. They won’t let you do that.”

I took the test and finger-pecked to the best of my ability. I typed 36 words per minute. But the frustrating part is if I am allowed to use the proper tool, I can type upwards of 60 words per minute without even trying.

Hopefully, Wayne State ended up with someone who fit their needs, but the take-away is they chose tradition over talent in that moment.

 

What does your company choose? Is your company suffocating talent and innovative thinking because of blind loyalty to the conventional way of doing things? Do they still think Powerpoint is for bulleted lists and the only way to “call-in” is via voice telephone? What about your management style? Do you manage in the same manner as Wanda—insisting your employees do things your way…because that’s the way YOU do things? Do you assume the answer to a novel or experimental approach is “No”, even though your superiors are relying on you to create better results?

If you are mired in tradition, convention, and superstition, maybe you should switch your keyboard to Dvorak (and, perhaps, switch your thinking too). Let the universities catch up.

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Servant Leadership is Dumb.

I like to explore popular ideas pushed by thought leaders and accepted as valid, practicable beliefs by many managers. It is important to examine what we accept as true simply because we are told it is so.

One of the most widely held leadership myths I see perpetuated is the concept of “Servant Leadership”. Management gurus like Robert Greenleaf (who coined the phrase), Ken Blanchard, John C. Maxwell, and Stephen Covey speak and write at length about the importance of putting others before yourself.

Being an egoless, selfless leader is a surprisingly popular idea. And it is wrong-headed.

I admire the work and value contributed by the leaders I mentioned, but here is the way I see it… it is important to value talent in others and it is important to help others when and as it serves your own rational self-interests.

Serving the interests of others regardless of whether their goals are aligned with yours not only undermines your effectiveness, but also steals time and energy from your focus. Worse, it subordinates your happiness and goals to the whims of others.

The idea of “servant leadership” is a contradiction-in-terms. A leader who is a servant…is merely a servant who thinks he is a leader. Nothing more. A servant is a servant.

To make clear the lie within the phrase, simply replace the word “servant” with its more proper term, “slave”. Have you heard of “Slave Leadership”? Of course not. You may have heard of a slave who became a leader, but a Leader Slave is as ridiculous as it sounds.

A leader’s ego is the most precious and coveted attribute he or she owns. It is the ego of a great leader that drives him forward, that allows him to trust his own logic and have confidence in himself when others might not. It is also a leader’s ego that others value; it is the very thing others look up to and try to emulate in great leaders (even seemingly “egoless” leaders like Gandhi… or Ken Blanchard).

If you want to be a leader, do what other leaders do. Be egotistical enough to throw out the textbook and choose to believe in the power of your own mind to make the right decisions required to lead others.

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Why Should I Compromise?

“SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO COMPROMISE.”

This was advice from the head of Human Resources where I used to work. I built a reputation for being uncompromising in my values there, and this was his gentle reminder that I had better start toeing the line. I hear variations of this phrase often: “Let’s meet in the middle”, “Nothing is black and white”, “Can’t we all just get along?”.

These phrases share in common the “Lesser of Two Evils” mentality.

As I see it, choosing the “lesser of two evils’” is a cheap way to avoid responsibility… a cop-out to keep from facing challenges to your ideals or facing a fear of standing up for what you know is right. Some people in leadership roles secure their positions due to their ability to compromise, but such people are not necessarily leaders; they are just adept at playing politics, and sometimes bullying.

Exceptional leaders, by contrast, are characteristically uncompromising. Consider what kind of business Apple might be today if Steve Jobs compromised his vision for his products or company. (Actually, we do not have to consider; we know because during the time he was not leading Apple, the company floundered, until Steve Jobs returned and built the monolith the company remains today).

A great example of Jobs’ uncompromising values and vision can be seen in the way he lured Pepsi executive John Sculley into becoming Apple’s CEO with this famous quip: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

That is a boldly uncompromising argument to convince someone to leave one of the biggest brands in the world for one that, at that time, was not.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

When I am logically and morally right, I do not back down to placate someone else’s team or pander to people in powerful positions (and yes, not kissing up to bosses is sometimes to one’s detriment; you must define the relationship between your values and you).

I do not accept “the lesser of two evils” proposition because I understand such compromise attempts to belie the fact that both options are inherently evil, or wrong. I choose not to allow my values to be corrupted, even a little, for the sake of a vague notion of “common good” (which is commonly not good for either side). One of the best bosses I ever worked for put it succinctly, “Eating a little bit of rat poison instead of a lot of it… is not okay.”

HOW CAN I GET AWAY WITH IT?

Here is the dirty secret compromisers try not to acknowledge (even to themselves). Compromising for the “common good”, “finding middle ground”, “meeting half-way”, and other idioms are ways of expressing the same question:

“How can I get away with it?”

How can I get away with doing what I want to do, while making you (or the other person or team) think you are getting away with something as well?

This is the essence of how people strive to conceal immoral intentions under the guise of somehow doing others a favor, even if they strive to do so unwittingly or unconsciously.

Rather than working to compromise, try this: If you are wrong, accept it. Then find a way to support the other option on the table.

However, if you are right, you have no reason to compromise; don’t. The person on the other side is brought into light this way, forced either to demonstrate the vile truth they are attempting to hide (possibly from themselves) or instead nudged into being courageous and doing what is virtuously evident.

When you hear, “Sometimes you just have to compromise”, remember this:

“No, actually I don’t.”

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The 10 Commandments of Leadership

 

 

What is it about religion that produces such a profound and lasting effect on followers, and commands a level of loyalty and dedication any leader would  dream of aspiring to? I say there are 10 things, and if leaders internalize them, we will have a strong foundation for moving ourselves, our peers, our team, and our organization forward. Check them out.

The 10 (Leadership) Commandments


1. Religion has a unifying message with broad appeal that people rally around (indeed, the message is so appealing wars are fought over it). What is your personal message (or your organizational message)? What is inspiring about it? What are the priorities you (or your company) stand behind? What is the vision you and your followers should be striving for?

2. Religion advocates a clear reward for effort and conformity. If you live a good life, you go to Heaven. The reward is commensurate to the effort required to achieve it (if you live your whole life in conformance to the rules of the religion, then you get keys to the Pearly Gates and experience infinite joy). If your company believes the reward for work done well is you get to keep your job, you lose. If your organization believes the reward for work done well is more work (that probably belongs to someone else who was not pulling their weight), guess what? You lose. If your organization believes the reward for work done well over two decades is dinner and a nice watch… you lose. If this sounds like your company, I hope your leaders wake up because you are having your ass handed to you by companies who understand the reward for work done well is not more work. It is, instead, more freedom and greater autonomy (after all, what is Heaven all about? The gold streets are nice but not so important; the freedom to live forever in peace is what really counts…).

3. Religion provides simple, clearly stated, immutable rules to govern behavior and actions. These rules, or commandments, are minimal (there are only 10), not convoluted, and not filled with sub-clauses or exceptions. How do your company’s Human Resources policies compare? Do you need to fit them on more than 1 page? Is your dress code more than one sentence (“Dress sensibly.”)? HR representatives may be losing their minds as they read this, but here is the quick and dirty version to treating people like Humans and leveraging them as Resources: if you treat employees like adults, by and large they will act like adults. If you manage to the exceptions instead of the rule, you lose. If you do not believe this, it is simply because you have not tried it. How do I know? Somehow you and every other employee muddle through the rest of your lives outside of the office without needing a 40-page manual of policies, codes, guidelines, and other infantilizing documents. Consider that. 10 commandments are plenty. More than 10 is silly.

4. Religion has simple, clearly stated, repercussions for choosing not to follow the rules. I hear Hell is pretty warm this time of year… Notice the Bible, Qu’Ran, and Tora do not have progressive disciplinary policies. Company rules should be equally simple. If you produce results, you are part of the team. If you spend your time instead trying to derail the company’s mission or kissing up to the boss, you can be part of another company’s team. Face time and presence at a desk or in an office do not equal results. The new rule is this: move the team forward or get out.

5. Religion is filled with charismatic leaders who believe in their mission more than anyone else, and model the rules of behavior perfectly (for example, Jesus, Moses, Jim Bakker…). Does your company preach jargon like empowerment, trust, and innovation… but then reject new ideas, punish employees who buck the status quo, and force management into a role of permission-granting and law enforcement? That is the equivalent of being a Jim Bakker, of holding up a facade that looks like leadership. Looking like you are leading is not the same as leading. Jesus talked a good game, sure, but what set him apart from others is he did not stop at the words.

6. Religious leaders are visionary and approachable. They are also revolutionary. Perhaps in contrast to the number two leadership commandment (clear rewards for effort and conformity), great leaders provide clear rewards for conforming to their vision, but themselves are not seen as conformist. This is an important distinction. If the executives at your company are perceived as mouthpieces for the CEO or ownership, then they are not leading; they are following. Religious leaders believe fully in the message from their leader and they enroll others in their mission, but they are also seen as individual, autonomous thinkers by their own right. They are seen as people who strive to set the status quo where it is misaligned, not as (sometimes frustrated but ultimately powerless) enforcers of the status quo.

7. Religious leaders often heal, but never harm or directly punish their followers and supporters. Jesus was unbelievably forgiving; He even forgave the people committed to killing him, modeling to the end, the proper behavior he wished to see perpetuated. HR departments are sorely dysfunctional at many companies because (among other reasons) HR is intended to be the place employees go to find support and address their concerns, yet it is often also the entity that designs the methods and severity of punishment for wrongdoings. Human Resources, in effect, has become the abusive husband who beats his family, but lets them know it is for their own good and that he would not hit them if he did not love them. Choose NOT to be the leader who walks around carrying a big stick. Choose, instead, to be the proverbial old master—the Mr. Miyagi—who allows students to learn lessons on their own, but instructs them wisely and guides them to their goals.

8. In Religion, empowerment occurs through “free-will”, rather than “command-and-conquer”. Leaders that employ “I lead; you follow” or caste-system ideologies always lose in the Holy script (consider the Pharaohs…). By contrast, leaders that offer great vision and encourage participation, without punishing those who choose to walk away, always win (consider Moses, Jesus, and Saint Thomas Aquinas). The more freedom to be adults you offer employees, the more likely they are to follow you. Some executives have a hard time accepting this, but it is really no more complicated than stated here. Try it. It works.

9. Religious leaders achieve success through positive reinforcement, praise, and by rewarding perseverance. The “Land of Milk and Honey” came only after the hardship of crossing the desert—again, a reward commensurate to the effort. Leaders achieve success by also asking their firmest supporters to spread the vision and message, thus enrolling others (as Jesus enrolled the Disciples and they, in turn, spread His message by enrolling others). Jesus gave regular sermons speaking of Peace and Heaven (positive reinforcement for hardships faced in the present). Jesus gave praise to both his “Leader” (God) and his followers (the Apostles). Jesus healed the sick, thus rewarding perseverance and dedication to His cause. How does your company reward perseverance, success, and longevity? Are the rewards commensurate to the effort?

10. Religious leaders share, and regularly reaffirm the mission, vision, and goals-to-focus-on now. Religious leaders do this regularly—at least every Sunday. In some companies, the leader gives a quarterly status update. I do not know if there is a magic number for the right amount of vocally re-committing to your (or your company’s) goals. Hourly is clearly over the top and I suspect quarterly is not enough. My advice here is this needs to be an ongoing conversation, and it needs to start every time a new employee, team member, or follower, joins the team or movement.

Praying for Your Success

Being placed in a leadership position without proper leadership training is unfair to both the leader and the team he or she is charged with. A leader in that predicament is short-changed because he does not have the requisite skills or understanding of how his decisions affect the lives, attitudes, and livelihoods of the people being led. The team suffers by feeling lost (personally or professionally) and having little or no desire to drive the leader’s goals.

The result is a company in constant struggle, caught in a malaise of indifference toward work. There is ambivalence when results are achieved because goals in a dysfunctional company are won through abuse of power rather than through individual passion and collaboration.To succeed as an organization, you must create your personal “leadership religion” (or your “organizational religion”, or both) and figure out how best to preach it to your “masses”. BUT, all 10 things must be in place to be effective (the “9” commandments would not have worked if, say, “Thou shalt not kill” was left out).

One last thing to note, which should be obvious now, is that no less than 5 of the 10 Commandments to Success center around Leadership. If you are not on board already, it is time to see the Light and repent your former ways.

What do you need to do, to bring a “religion of success” to your organization? For extra credit, review the Leadership Commandments for your personal life, as well.

 

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