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.



Does Your Team Glow?

After a sales training presentation, one of my peers said to me, “Man, I love working with your managers. The energy they bring is just amazing. It’s like, they just glow… I wish I saw that same thing on my team right now.”

I said, with a wink, “Well, that glow is just arrogance. We can be a little vain…”.

He smiled, but answered seriously. “No. It’s competence. Your team glows with competence.”

I remembered something my friend and mentor, Phillip Ford told me when I was a new manager, and I shared it with my peer. “One of the secrets to being a successful leader is to find and hire people who are smarter than you think you are.”

He looked at me quizzically.

I continued, “If you are the smartest person on your team, that is a problem because then the entire team can only rise to your level of competence. If you hire good people who are brighter than you, then you will learn and grow together. Your talents feed off each other and it is not just you contributing to the team. Everyone is chipping in, helping each other avoid pitfalls, challenging stale ideas, and creating new ways to succeed. You are benefiting from their brains and they are benefiting from your leadership and experience. Life becomes much easier then. The little stuff goes on auto-pilot because they can handle small details in their sleep. This frees everyone to focus on really interesting stuff instead.”

His eyes lit up. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but I think just then, the young peer started glowing.



What Is The Real Value of Spending?

If you have had to ask for money from your boss for you or your team to host an event, attend a seminar, be in a parade, or otherwise spend company money, then you are probably familiar with the term “Return On Investment” (ROI). Before you spend company money, the company wants to know (as it should) how your spending is going to eventually add to the bottom line instead of take away from profits.

The problem is, sometimes there is no direct link to return-on-investment. The obvious cause does not always lead to the obvious effect.

I have had marketing requests turned away because someone could not see the value in a particular event or idea. Sometimes the value is not in the event itself. Sometimes, what is ultimately driving the ROI is the benefit of having a team learn to work together by attending the event or implementing the idea they are excited about.

For example, your team might want to spend money going to a holiday parade and handing out flyers or setting up a booth to showcase your products. You have seen things like this before; you know holiday parades do not translate into short-term revenue growth, they never seem to work, etc., so you choose not to support the event and deny the request rather than waste time and budget on (another) unsuccessful marketing event.

What revenue are you focused on, though?

What is the value of having a team work together, developing a leader you put in charge of the event, or spending time with your team working somewhere away from the workplace? Does your accounting department measure ROI on that? How much money does a better-functioning, higher-performing team with greater morale generate?

Note to company leaders: be sure you know where the money actually comes from as well as you think you know where it goes.

Capital is one way to measure ROI, and though measuring money directly gained might be the most popular way, it might not always be the best way.


As usual, this applies well beyond the office. When you spend money on anything, you should know what you actually are receiving in return for your investment. Is that new television going to provide a better, more comfortable life… or rob you of health and time that can be spent enjoying family and friends on a fantastic vacation? 20 years from now, you probably will not even remember what television you spent $2500 on two decades ago, but the memories from that crazy vacation will bring stories of adventure and laughter for the rest of your life. Which is truly the better return on investment?

No one likes to spend money and have nothing to show for it. The trick is to be sure you are looking in the right place to find the value.




The Heroic Leader

I think of Leadership in terms of heroes and villains.

Villains are free to do whatever they want and pretty much get away with it, until a hero steps in. Villains can slack off, cheat, be dishonest, act recklessly, and never consider consequences for their actions.

Heroes must win while playing by the rules, doing the right thing the right way, and considering actions before taking them.

The burden of leadership is that leaders must be heroes–role models for others to look up to. We do not get to take the easy way out; we must live and act according to our own values (which is the very reason people are willing to follow us). We must understand the people we are leading may not have the same fortitude or character they expect a leader to always exhibit.

It can be frustrating when you feel the weight of leadership bearing down on you while others seem to get away with everything… but nobody promised being a leader would be easy or that every day would be rewarding.

The key is to remember who you are and why you choose to step up and stand for something more than the workday or the status quo.  We have the choice to be average at any time, just as heroes always have the choice to put away the cape and mask. The number one performer in a company can always choose to be the number 15 performer–skating just under the radar, doing enough to stay out of trouble but never taking on the burden of moving forward.

For better or worse, that is just not who we are as leaders. It is not within us to stand back and hide our greatness in times of crisis, despair, or a competition of values. It is not within us to allow people on our team to hide their greatness either. We take on the burden of being coaches, mentors, counselors, teachers, friends, and drill sergeants as needed.

The funny thing is, heroes never give up on villains; they always hope to bring them back to the light, to help them back to the path of being heroic or standing for something (more). Villains, on the other hand, may or may not be conflicted, may or may not be willing to change, may or may not be willing to be something more than they are.

The difference between heroes and villains, between leaders and stragglers, is that villains never remember what they stand for or why they should want to be something greater… and heroes never forget.



Do You Ask Dumb Questions?


My boss, Nick, recently taught me one of my favorite leadership lessons. He said, “Sometimes you just have to ask dumb questions”. I think by “dumb”, he meant “blatantly obvious”.

It is surprising what you can uncover from your team by asking blatantly obvious questions to which you already know the answers. He also gave me a powerful phrase to preface the question: “Help me understand…”

For example, you might have an employee who is under-performing and it is clearly because he or she is prone to wasting time on the clock. A dumb question conversation might sound like this:

“Bob, help me understand why you have only sold 2 widgets so far this month. The minimum goal is 10 and we are 3 weeks in. What’s going on?”

Bob: “Um… well, I have just been really busy with the paperwork. You know, there’s been a lot of customer service issues I’ve had to deal with… uh, I don’t know. I mean… I’m trying…”

“Great. I’m glad to hear you’re trying,” (following up with more dumb questions) “but let me ask you this… your teammates seem to have the same challenges and time frame to work with. Why do you suppose they are able to reach their goals while you are struggling?”

Bob (getting a little defensive): “I don’t know. Maybe they are just better at selling…”

“Do you really think so?” (Dumb question.)

Bob: “No. I mean, I guess… I don’t know; maybe they are just better at time management or something…”

“I see. Well, I really need you to pick up the pace on your numbers. Do you think you can sell 5 widgets by the end of this week? Would you agree that one a day is a reasonable goal?”

Bob: “Yes. That’s reasonable. I will make it my top priority.”

“Great! What can I do to help?”


That last question–“What can I do to help?”–is not a dumb question (though I suppose there are times when it could be). It is, according to Nick,  the proper follow-up to the phrase, “Help me understand…”. When you are trying to discover the root cause of performance (good or bad), or if you are trying to remove excuses from an under-performer, or even just seeking a way to fill the holes in your team’s game, try Nick’s method.

Start with, “Help me understand…” then ask dumb questions to discover or uncover information, and finish by asking, “What can I do to help?”

By the way, there may be times when you can legitimately provide a new tool, resource, training, or perspective to help, but the most common answer to “What can I do to help?” is “Nothing I can think of right now…”. Turns out if you are asking what else you can do to help, it is usually because you have already done all you can think of, and the sub-text of the conversation is that the employee is quickly running out of options to avoid being successful.

Remember: “Help me understand…” Ask dumb questions… “What can I do to help?”

Try having a dumb question conversation and let me know what results you get. This has quickly become one of my favorite management tools.


(Thanks Nick.)



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.