Can I See You In My Office?

Every day I share a life lesson I have learned. Here’s today’s…

*****

Leaders often forget their words have more weight than they realize. One of my pet peeves is delivering a vague request (this is one of Nicole’s pet peeves, too, it turns out). I am talking about the email from your boss that says, “Can we talk? I’ll send a meeting request.” Or the dreaded, “Can I see you in my office?” which seems to happen only on Friday afternoons, the scariest time of all.

If you are in a leadership position, be sensitive about the power you have. When people know they can not say “no” to you, then it is up to you to put them at ease. If the team member you are talking to is not in trouble, do not be vague about it. “Hi. Can we talk–about the Prometheus project schedule so far? I’ll send a meeting request later.” Or, “Can I see you in my office? Nothing bad; I just a have an idea I want to run by you.

Vague commands presented as requests are disrespectful to the person you are speaking with and it makes you look like a wimp. “Can I see you in my office?” sounds like you are afraid to approach a situation in public. Instead try, “Can I see you in my office, please? I want to talk about the Prometheus project.

If you must be vague, give a reason. “Can I see you in my office, please? Sorry to be vague but it is a sensitive matter.

Most of all, do not leave your team-mate hanging. “I need to talk to you this week.” Or, “I’ll call you today.” When? When do you need to see him or what time will you call her?

Some leaders enjoy the power of vagueness. They like to watch people squirm. That is not leading, though. It is bullying and many good leaders do not realize they are doing it.

Hopefully, acknowledging the problem will help you take the first step in rectifying it, or at least serve as a friendly reminder not to leave your people hanging.

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Don’t Hire Me!

The secret to hiring well is, well, not hiring.

*****

I would not say I am a “recruitment whisperer” but I have a good track record of hiring great teams. In a group training session, a new hire asked, “How did you know everyone in this room would work so well together? We all have such different personalities, yet we all seem to gel. What’s your secret?”

I said, “The truth is, as I interviewed each of you, I was never looking for a reason to bring you on board. I was trying to find any reason not to hire you.”

He looked stunned. I continued, “I think many hiring managers miss that point. I talked to each of you several times but every one of my questions was designed to give you enough rope to hang yourself. Everyone in this room is truly the best of the best I interviewed. You are here because I could not think of a single reason for you not to be here. So, pat yourselves on the back and thanks for making my job easy!”

Leaders (in whatever field) are leaders, I think, because they often move forward by going the opposite direction of everyone else.

 

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3 Ways Leaders Sabotage Companies

Today’s Lesson: Know what you want. Know how you will get there. Treat your best people best.

*****

There are 3 ways I see leaders sabotage the success of their company:

1. Leaders want results, but do not know what “results” are (and do not have a legitimate path or plan to achieve them). Every company I know of has a goal, that trickles down as a never-ending demand, to “increase profits”. There is nothing wrong with making more profit except “make more profits” is a wish, not a goal. Cutting expenses, for example, would seem to help increase profit for a company but if the line-items being shaved are at the expense of employee morale, saving those pennies can actually undermine the goal of  profitability.

I once worked for a company that required a request form be completed when employees wanted office supplies, including standard disposable pens. Employees, of course, began bringing their own pens and other supplies to avoid the rigamarole. The policy worked. The company did save a few bucks, but also many employees eventually left for better companies that valued team members more than they valued disposable pens. No one cited the request form as a reason for leaving but former employees still bring the story up when they get together.

Results drive profitability; pens do not.

Leaders can fail at understanding which results are being driven or even how to identify a result. A result, I say, is the outcome (positive or negative) of actions taken to reach an objective. Knowing the results a company or team is striving to bring to life helps your team know if they are winning the game. So the first rule to defining a result is, there must be an end in sight or a way to know the game is over.

A desired result must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal. Imagine if marathon runners were told to run faster and faster (the desired result being to reach the finish line) but were never told where the finish line is or what path to take. They would lose steam quickly, not knowing when to tap their energy reserves to push forward. Some would run the wrong direction. Some would stop too often while others would never know if they should ever take a break. Many would quit after a short time. Team members need to know how to win, and what winning looks like.

A result must also be actionable. Running a marathon is obviously actionable. You strap your shoes on and run. But what about selling more widgets? The obvious action is not always present. A good leader reduces the workload and narrows the vision of the goal until the next action is so clear it seems stupid to do anything else. Telling your marathoners to “run that way really fast until I tell you to stop” is not clear. Pointing out the fastest, most direct route to the finish line, noting where a team should be at what point in the race, and encouraging them to move forward when they are tired (keeping updates on where the goal is, how far they have come, and how close they are) creates an actionable map to success.

The criteria for a result, then, is: it must have an end; it must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal, and you must be able to take clear action to achieve it.

What kind of map does your organization provide when asking for (or demanding) results?

 

2. Leaders have goals that are not actually goals. I have yet to come across a high-performing team that has met its primary objective. As my ROWE friends will tell you, many leaders and business owners operate under an archaic notion that the appropriate reward for work done well… is more work.

If you do not have a resting spot or reward zone for your high performers when they achieve results (which presumes the results are defined, reachable, and actionable), then your team is in jeopardy. Your true goal as a leader at that point has become simply to burn out your best people–to drain every ounce of effort from your top team members until they finally give up (and become middle or bottom performers), move up (being promoted so they can start the cycle over) or move on (to another career altogether). If that is where you are headed, then that is a goal worth re-thinking.

Many leaders I meet believe that “More” is itself a goal. “Our goal this year,” they say, “is to do even More sales than last year”. I challenge this by asking, “When is ‘more’… ‘enough’?”. Rather than create a goal for your team of “increase profit and reduce expenses”, define the terms. Set a profit goal of 30 million dollars and provide regular updates on which team members are helping most and how close you are to the goal as a team. Even better, add a clear incentive: “If we reach 30 million dollars in revenue by September 1st, the top 10% of our employees as judged by (X metric–widget sales, maybe, or customer return rate, etc.) will receive a one-time bonus check of $4,080 (or a two dollar-per-hour raise paid out in October if the goal is hit by September 1st). Does your team know what the stakes are and what the payoff for winning is? Perhaps most importantly, are the stakes and payoff commensurate to the effort you are asking of your team?

 

3. Leaders force top performers to work in the same cookie-cutter rule set as bottom performers, but continue to expect top performance. One of the biggest fallacies in work culture is that everything has to be fair. All workers have to follow the same rules, the same way, or you will be making exceptions all the time. The problem with this should be blatantly obvious, yet nearly every company institutes this erroneous idea to a fault. If every employee were the same and every work rule and practice were always the same, then results would always be the same… but they never are. Some weeks or months are more profitable than others; some employees are better at some tasks than others.

Leaders often refuse to acknowledge the reason “fair” does not work is because some employees are better than others. Go ahead and pick your cup off the floor–I said it and it is true. Some employees are better than others. If you prefer more politically correct phrasing, you can trade that for, “some employees provide greater value to the organization”.

I remember my first day working for a consulting firm that hired me for my innovative ideas on how to achieve the company’s vision and bring their mission statement and values to life. I watched the leaders of the company give a 3-hour power-point presentation to a large group. Afterwards they asked what I thought. I said, “I would get rid of the Power-point presentation or reduce the number of slides to 10 or less and remove most of the bullet points in favor of eye-catching pictures.” I was told the power-point has to stay as it is and I needed to learn their way instead of create my own. Although I gained invaluable experience, I did not last long with that employer because I was not a good fit for their cookie-cutter role. Within only a few months, they realized they did not know what to do with me. In the end, I lost a great team and they lost one of their greatest advocates and a committed employee… that might have become a great employee.

Effective leaders, I think, are effective because they know the distinction between a goal, a result, and a wish (a result, as stated previously, must exist in time and space–that is, a result is the measurable end of a cause/effect relationship in reality). A goal, on the other hand, is the desired end sum of results. It is what the results amount to. Great leaders understand that “More, Better, Different” are not goals (if your goal starts with any variation of those terms–“We need to make more widgets this year… we need better materials… we need a different approach…”, then you can stop there because you do not have a goal).

Goals set the end-point of results just as the finish line sets the end point of a marathon. The reward for meeting results and achieving goals should not be a never-ending raising of the bar. Top performers want a moment to enjoy their victory and look proudly over their kingdom–they need rest and a comfortable spot from which to observe their achievements once in a while.

Finally, great leaders throw out the cookie-cutter. Just because a company has done something the same way for 40 years is no justification to keep doing things the same way (“old” does not mean “effective”). Allowing your team the freedom to experiment and fail, and rewarding top-performers by treating them differently, with ever more freedom to do things their way, is a sure path to victory. Even if it seems crazy and no other person or team is doing it like your top performer… if he or she is producing the agreed-upon results and moving you toward your goal, don’t knock it; find a way to leverage it and improve it. Not forcing others to follow suit creates a little chaos, but it is exactly the right recipe for growth and innovation.

But don’t take my word for any of this. Ask your top performers what they think. Then listen, and step to the side of these 3 pitfalls.

Define results. Remember, the sum of defined results should lead to a goal. Reward your top performers with more freedom instead of more assignments.

 

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Why Did You Start Here?

Why did you take that job?

*****

There is a popular saying among leaders: “People do not quit their jobs. They quit their managers.” When I look back at the jobs I have left, most of the time that was true for me.

Today, I learned the adverse is also true. Before I decided to move out-of-state, I hired a new manager for my team. Between the time I extended the offer and her first day working for me, I made the decision to leave the company. I sat down with her today and explained the situation, assuring her she would be in good hands and laying out the details of her next few weeks. It was important to me, to make sure she felt supported and knew she has been set-up for success regardless of my departure.

After our conversation, she said, “I am really excited for you but I am also sad to see you go. We didn’t get to work together and one of the biggest reasons I decided to jump ship was because I wanted to come here and work for you.”

I was humbled and a bit awe-struck by the statement, though in retrospect, it seems obvious. She chose to work at this company based on conversations with me and the experiences I shared during our initial interview. She chose to work here because she trusts me, not necessarily because of what she read on our website.

When I thought about that, I realized that I also made many of my job choices because I liked, trusted, or recognized I could learn a lot from the person who interviewed me. In fact, the person representing the company was probably the biggest factor in my deciding to work for a company.

I was surprised to realize I was on the other side of that equation today.

 

Today’s Lesson: People do not quit their jobs. They quit their bosses. But also, people do not choose their jobs. They choose their leaders. 

 

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What Makes You a Leader?

Who died and made you boss?

***

The managers on our team and I have a round table discussion each week. The topics range from sales figures and strategies to what the word “premium” means (as in “premium retailer”). This week, the question was thrown out there, “How long did it take you to feel comfortable in your role as leader?”

I pointed out that when someone is promoted to manager, nothing magical happens. There is no one who knights you or gives you a ring endowed with magic manager powers. In fact, nothing looks different from the day before. Nor should it. “Manager” (or “leader”, “executive”, “director”, etc.) is not an elected position. That was the first piece of advice I was given when I landed my first management position. My boss at the time (and one of the best leaders I have ever worked with to this day) explained that “manager” is no better than “janitor” in an organization. It is just a different set of responsibilities.

This realization would impact the rest of my career and provide one of my greatest strengths as a leader (in my opinion)… I never look down on the people I employ. I treat them as partners in the organization, only with a different set of responsibilities from mine. I believe this single, simple principle has brought forth dynamic change anywhere I have worked with oversight of a team.

 

Today’s lesson: When you take on a leadership role, don’t let it go to your head. You were not elected to the position and you hold your authority by the grace of the people willing to let you lead them.

 

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When Does Accountability Become Punishment?

Is it effective to punish employees for not meeting expectations?

***

I was CC’d on an email from a high-level manager praising a mid-level manager for essentially punishing his team for not delivering expected results. Sounds crazy, right?

In the mid-level manager’s message, he gave a simple punishment assignment. He asked his subordinates for a point-by-point explanation for why his team failed to meet his expectations. What was interesting to me was that this was praised by the high-level manager as an example of what I think has become the new code word for punishment: “accountability.”

The implication of the praise was, “Look at John! He is doing a great job holding his team accountable… and you should, too.

“Holding people accountable” has become a management mantra.

Maybe the intention comes from the right place but the actions advocated are often counter-intuitive and counter-productive. For example, telling your subordinates to produce a play-by-play explanation of why they did not meet your expectations will likely result in you getting exactly what you asked for. They will provide the minimum list of things required that they think you want to hear. They will also resent the time you are wasting asking for it. In a sense, it is like demanding an explanation from a child as to why they drew on the walls with crayon. It does not matter what the answer is. The question is a trap. There is no acceptable response available to the child.

It is easy to spot this sort of management trap by asking yourself a question: “If the result I asked for was met but the person did not follow every step of my directions to get there… would I still be asking?” Would you still be having the conversation if the team member met your expectations but did it their way, or would you not care so much how they did it, only THAT they did it?”

I think that might be the distinction between actual accountability (which I think some leaders believe is an even exchange for the word “responsibility”) and punishment. Holding someone accountable to their actions implies expecting them to keep their word. A very subtle but essential distinction here is they have to have given their word to be expected to keep it.

In the workplace, employees rarely, if ever, give their word. Instead, their word is given to them in the form of instructions, assignments, and demands. Think of the last time you paid a bill online or downloaded software. When the website provides an “End User License Agreement” (EULA–you know, that long list of terms no one reads before clicking “Accept”), the website is providing a false choice. You have to click “Accept” to move forward. When there is actually no choice, or when the choice is an ultimatum, there can be no legitimate assumption of accountability.

“You can use our product if you accept the terms explained over 7 pages of legal jargon and outrageous demands to compromise your privacy and security… or you can not use the product at all”…that is not a legitimate choice that can expect accountability because the end-user has no power to compromise. The same is true of something like, “We just raised our expectation for you to build 400 widgets a day instead of 300… or you can’t keep working here.” You forfeit your right to hold someone accountable when they agree under threat, whether blatant or implied.

This is not to say as managers, we can never expect people to rise to meet the demands of competition, profit, and production. It is only to say often, we are not actually having an “accountability” conversation.

What works better for me (and maybe not for everyone–after all, if I had all the answers I would be running a multi-billion dollar un-accountability firm!) is trading an “accountability” conversation to a “collaboration” conversation. “I see you did not do what I asked, John. I would like to explain why the expectation was important and then come up with a plan together to figure out how we can meet the goal in front of us. Okay?”

I find people tend to be more receptive to helping and stepping up to meet expectations when they choose to do so of their own volition instead of mine. Your team should never be treated as cogs for the machine of your success; instead, remember why you hired them. You need partners committed to the same goals. You do not have to hold a 50/50 partner accountable. You just have to motivate each other and help each other along and it would be insulting and disrespectful to demand a written essay of why he or she is not doing what you expect of them.



Today’s lesson: There is a fine line between “holding someone accountable” and punishing them for what you assume is bad behavior. Punishment breeds resentment or false commitment or faked results. Instead, try collaboration. Assume you have a team of adults committed to working together professionally and your role is to act as diplomat (not disciplinarian) between them to help facilitate communication and resolve breakdowns in action. This, in my opinion, is a more fulfilling role than trying to manage a brood of indignant children with crayons running around an empty house.

 

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The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

 

“You will hear the bird no matter what but you will only catch the melody if you listen.”

Do you have a friend or team member that seems to never know when to stop speaking? You like him but he rambles, repeats, goes off on tangents, shares too many details, or does not pick up on social cues that normally alert others when we are talking too much.

There is one sure way I know of to stop someone who will not stop talking:

listen.

Over-talkers speak so much, I think, because they never feel listened to, so they keep talking to make their point (because what else can they do?). The irony is they are right. Many of us hear but rarely listen. Hearing is a passive action–you can not stop yourself from hearing the world around you, including people speaking to you. You can not will yourself not to hear the clerk at the cash register or the car with the bad muffler across the street or the bird outside your window.

Listening, however, is active. It requires intention. You will hear the bird no matter what but you will only catch the melody if you listen.

Listening is like meditation. To do it properly, you must stop the chatter in your mind and focus only on the present and the sound (or person in front of you). Most people do not listen to what is being said…they listen for their turn to speak.

I know sometimes I find myself so focused on spitting out my witty response to something that I miss the 10 sentences after the one I wanted to comment on. As passive listeners, we tend to wait for a break so we can say what is important to us instead of listening to what is important to the person we are speaking with.

Here is the best tip I can offer to encourage active listening:

Listen without interrupting and listen with the intention of listening–the way you pause to listen to your favorite song, taking in every sound, appreciating it, and letting it fill your mind. It is okay if you are not able to share every clever remark that enters your mind; it is more important you listen to your friend or team-mate in the moment.

The reason some people talk too much is simple: they want to feel listened to. They believe (whether consciously or sub-consciously) no one listens to them. If they realize you are listening intently to every word they say, then I assure you they will suddenly not have as much to say, and you will be able to move on to the next conversation quickly.

Today’s lesson… do not only hear what people say. Listen intently and intentionally and wait patiently without worrying what you will say when they pause. Let them finish. You will be surprised at how much more you will learn and how much time listening saves over hearing.

 

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Should You Be the Life of the Party?

Everything was going great until SHE arrived…

 

At a party, I noticed how adept the host was. She held herself confidently and expertly kept the room engaged and having fun for several hours. She clearly had a strong presence and was viewed as “the leader of the party”. Then someone else arrived on the scene and everything shifted.

The new person was a business mentor of the host and was clearly used to having authority. She literally and figuratively commanded the room’s attention. Many of the guests began fawning over the new arrival and the host of the event gracefully slipped into the background, letting her mentor steer the energy and focus of the party.

It was fascinating to watch the shift in power and I realize that I have seen it before… when my boss visits my stores, for example, there is a clear (to me) shift in the energy and focus of the store. There is also a clear shift from the store’s normal manager to me when I visit.

Today’s lesson is: recognize when you are playing to your strengths and the world is with you. Be aware, also, when you are taking the limelight from another leader and unintentionally undermining their authority. It is okay for you to lay back and let another less experienced leader practice leading. Also, if you are going to a party and realize you are in command of the room, be gracious enough to step back and let the host be the host, even if they are gracious enough not to call you a jerk.

 

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Today’s Lesson: Do You Trust Me Enough To Trust Me? [140911]

Sitting at dinner with the managers on my team, I asked what do we (the company’s leadership team) do that is just stupid? What do we do that gets in the way of helping our frontline people be effective?

 

The answer surprised me. They resoundingly said, “You don’t trust us to manage.”

 

They gave me a couple great examples, both having to do with email. The first example is when someone from upper management (including me) sends information that is easily and readily available, like an email with a snippet of a daily report every manager already reviews as part of their morning routine. I might as well send an email that says, “Look, Dummy–you didn’t sell enough stuff yesterday; did you notice that?” (YES, they noticed!).

 

An even better example is when the Area Director sends a message directly to our team (skipping the Region Manager, District Manager, and Store Manager). The Region Manager often forwards the same message to be sure it is read (the perception is he or she does not trust the frontline managers to understand the importance of the Area Director’s message or he does not trust the District Managers to deliver the message with the appropriate emphasis). On top of that, the District Manager forwards the Region Manager’s forwarded message (because the District Manager does not trust the Store Managers to understand the implications of either the Region Manager’s or the Area Director’s message or because the District Manager wants to show he is doing his job by making sure the message has additional impact from him).

 

Of course, the buck stopped at the Area Director’s message. If it came from him, it inherently has more authority and impact than it would from the Region, District, or Store Managers. There is no reason to forward it or add to it. The frontline team members end up receiving the same message 3 times in 3 ways from 3 people. Heaven help them if the owner of the company sends a message! It gets forwarded by EVERYBODY!

 

The result of this madness, it turns out, is a lot of damage. Obviously, it generates email clutter which detracts from the importance of the original message. It works in the same way spam clutters your personal email. Too many messages make it hard to find the relevant stuff. Worse, piggy-backing messages by re-forwarding them undermines not only the frontline Store Manager’s authority (because if something is really important, then her team knows it will come from her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss) but it also undermines the authority of the Store, District, and Region Manager. It works all the way down. If the District Manager forwards a message to his entire team from the Region Manager, but with slightly added verbiage, then he is undermining both his influence and the influence of the frontline Store Manager. He is in effect saying, “I don’t trust you to deliver this message to our team so I am going to break it down for your tiny brain to be sure you do it the right way, which, of course, is MY way.”

 

It was a powerful lesson for me and, honestly, it was hard to hear. I like to think I am adding value to a message when I forward it or that I am saying something is extra important when I skip my managers and take command of their teams. As usual, this lesson applies to more than just business, too. How many times a day do I subvert my authority or influence by trying to re-deliver an already obvious message? How many times do I try to cram a message down someone’s throat, unknowingly?

 

We all know the type, right? You have met the guy who says, “Your hair looked better the other way,” and then after you say thanks for letting you know his thoughts (which you probably did not ask for), he continues, “No, I mean, it really looks bad the way you have it now. You should go back to the other way.” Did you not get the message the first time?

 

I now have a commitment to send no more than 5 emails per day to my team (I might fail sometimes, but this is the general goal). I have also committed not to skip my managers to deliver a message to their team but rather hold the managers accountable for delivering my message their way (and helping clarify or back them up when needed)–as they so movingly reminded me at dinner, “We got this. We will fight for you. That’s our job.” (I actually choked up when they said that.)

 

Finally, I have committed not to forward (or re-forward) a message already sitting in their inbox. Hopefully, this will help reduce their email clutter and help streamline their day. There is another added benefit, here… this means on the rare occasion when I do have something important enough to say to every individual team member directly, they will listen intently because it is not just clutter. It is that important.

 

When was the last time you asked your team (or your family) what you (or your company) do that just needs to go away? What do you do that’s stupid? Give them the space to answer and you might just find some lessons for yourself…

 

 


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Are Your Messages High Priority?

Many company leaders set the default on their email to mark every message they send as “High Priority” (a red-flagged message when received). They inherently believe their position has made them so important that any thought shared must be the most important thought ever shared.

The problem is this: when everything is High Priority, then nothing is high priority. If all messages are marked “high-priority”, then their status becomes average priority or no priority by definition.  When the owner of a company takes the time to send an email, the priority is already inferred by his title. Setting the default to make all his messages “high priority” leaves him no way to convey a message that actually needs a critically urgent response.

Marking a message as “High Priority” is like shouting, “Fire!”. If someone yells “Fire!” all the time, and there is almost never a fire, then no one will hurry for the exits when the building is really burning down.

Turn your High Priority default setting off. Accept that every word that tumbles out of your mouth (or onto your screen) is just not that important.

Instead, use “high priority” sparingly and you will find it is very effective when needed.

 

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