Category Archives: Managing Teams

Building Your 21st Century Workplace: TALK BACK

In my last article called “Building Your 21st Century Workplace,” I referenced an article from millennial observer, Dan Schwabel. In it he posited 5 new rules for the workplace, about which I gave my observations.

I received this interesting email from a reader that I felt was so compelling I wanted to share it with you. After reading these comments, I invite comments from other readers about whether you see these rules in a negative or positive way.

Anyway, here is the email for your review and consideration:

“I enjoyed your positive spin on the 5 new rules of the work place. When I first read them, my instinct (as an employee-type) was to automatically see them as all negatives (as did many of my friends/siblings who all weighed in when I posted this on my own Fb page).

Here’s how we saw it:

1. Everyone is a free agent. Translation: Your workplace doesn’t care about you. They care about their bottom-line. If it comes down to choosing between money and a valuable employee, most employers will go with money….leaving employees in the lurch (for evidence look no further than the unemployment rate in this country or the number of companies outsourcing or the rate at which employers are dropping benefits). So the message is clear: Don’t feel too loyal or any sense of obligation to your employer, because they don’t feel the same about you. If push comes to shove they will drop you.  (With the exception, I guess, of those companies you mentioned like Google who take great care to cater to their employees.)

2. You’re only good as your last project. Translation: Everything you’ve worked for and achieved during your career doesn’t matter. Your employers have short-term memories. They remember your last mistake or your last achievement. In this dog-eat-dog business world, your job is on the line every day. (Again, refers back to no. 1).

3. Work is not confined to 9 to 5. Translation: Get over having a life outside your career. If you want to work and stay working, you better be working (or thinking about work or leveraging your work or networking) 24-7.

4. Make change or be affected by it. Translation: See 1-3 above. Your head could be on the chopping room floor every day…so be very, very careful. Get out ahead of the pack and stay there.

5. You are accountable for your own career. Translation: You’re on your own, buddy! No one wants to help you succeed. Every man for him/herself, so do what you can to survive! No one is going to promote you, pay you more or help/mentor you in this economy. Everyone is fighting for the same few measly jobs.

I know this is decidedly negative perspective, but it gives insights to how a lot of young people feel—especially in this economy.

Yours sounded much more positive and upbeat and gave a nice perspective that I had not thought of before.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

The Millennials Speak Up

My last article “The Millennials are Coming (What do we do now?)” prompted some email responses from some readers who wanted to add further perspectives or to respond to points I made.  In general, I think they agreed with my observations, but added some rich commentary about why these points are so.     It reminds me that it is very difficult to generalize about something as complex as an entire generation, and there are as many perspectives as there are people.

One person wrote:

“So, I will start with the caveat that I am extremely defensive about this topic also I have read a lot of articles but disagree with most of the approaches or data findings. My issue is that I read article upon article that states these generational preferences and I think that the statements lose meaning without further exploration.”

Extreme Flexibility

“For me,, she continued, “there is a lot of value in understanding ‘why’ the generation is different because I think the rationale as to ‘why’ exposes one of the most positive generational differences which for me is ‘extreme flexibility.’”

This generation has seen dramatic changes in technology use and has adapted to it as experts (where I would say baby boomers are just adapting as learners). The generation has been exposed to extreme changes in the work force and corporate responsibility and will likely have the most exposure to globalization. The flexibility the generation exhibits is the most impressive to me and is further explained using the next points:

  •  Gen Y-ers want flexible work hours – of course! We lived through a time when our parents missed our concerts and games and missed the connectivity to family events that our grandparents demanded with such norms as stores being closed on Sundays.
  • Furthermore, we grew up in a time when moms stayed at home and families could afford that setup and therefore a working adult didn’t need the flexibility of coming home to meet the cable man, etc.  Today, more economics has made dual career families a necessity.  So we have to learn to balance many more issues than did our parents.

The issue of More “Me Time”

  •  “I’m not sure Gen Y-ers need more “me time” at work.  My colleagues started working at a time when going home truly meant that your focus moved from work to home.  Now, we are constantly connected and interrupted by work during all hours of the day at night with little transition between focuses.  So my perception is not that we need more “me time” at work but rather that we need to make a choice (at some point) to take care of ourselves because we never get to turn our work-life off.”

On this point, another reader added:

  • “It also seems like “me time”/flex time might be more a consequence of technology than of generation–since more people are able to work from home or check email outside work hours, people expect that in exchange for that, they should be able to take time off during the day to go to the gym or to deal with personal stuff. I know people who work at Lockheed where everything’s so classified you can’t have a cell phone or bring work email home who have a much cleaner work-life boundary.”

Constant Flow of Feedback

  • “Gen Y-ers expect a constant flow of feedback – I think this is true, but again I think it is interesting to think about where this comes from. Since I have been working (not yet 5 years) there have been at least 3 down-sizing’s that could have impacted my job. My perception is that this was not as common for our Baby-boomer colleagues. So I need to know how I am doing because it may impact my job! And frankly my Baby-boomer colleagues are the ones who taught me to constantly get the feedback because they are sitting in the same position as me. We all need to validate our work to ensure our job. This is just a change in the workforce and I think it impacts EVERYONE, not just the Gen Y-ers.”

The Need for Mentors

  • “They are looking for mentors – who isn’t? I actually think this is more common for the mature generations then the green ones….But if I humor the concept for a moment, then I would say that we have to find mentors because we are so worried about fitting in.  We need feedback and we need connectivity because people constantly tell us how our generation is bad/wrong/not grateful etc.  So, we exhibit proactive behaviors to prove these perceptions as wrong.”

I find it interesting to read how some of these people feel defensive about criticisms they hear, I presume, from older people.   I don’t think that is anything new.   I can surely remember my parents commenting that my generation was getting it all wrong.  They didn’t understand how we dressed what we saw in Rock and Roll, or how we could be so disrespectful to our country to protest.   I also saw that my aunts and uncles at the time agreed with them.

Sure Millennials are different.   And so they should be.   We all learn from our parents and want to make our own way.   Looking around the planet, it’s hard to argue that the Boomers got it all right.  There are surely many serious problems we are leaving for the next generation to solve.

I believe that those of us in positions of power (older people) build our organizations – including all our policies and procedures – to fit US.  We build our companies around what WE believe, think, and value.

The fallacy of this is that in just the blink of an eye, our children are our employees, and our customers.   So we need to think more about how to build our organizations around THEM.     This should prove vital as they seek to attract and retain the best talent.  This is especially so in industries where technology can be a differentiator.  Millennials are extremely tech savvy, and are better networked than any preceding generation.  There should be a way to harness this skill set and turn it into a competitive advantage . . .

I find it interesting that when I show examples in my classes about companies like Zappos, Netflix, Google, etc., the common reaction is, “Wow that would never work in our organization.”   People seem to think it is some weird California thing.   I suspect these tech companies are more generational focused on younger employees and it is setting a new bar in how graduating college kids are thinking their future employers should look.    My hypothesis is that the less “Google-like” your business looks, the more of a disadvantage you are at in attracting this increasingly important age group.

Other Related Articles

The Millennial Generation


Filed under Innovation, Leading, Managing Teams

The Millennials Are Coming! What Do We Do Now?

Plenty of surveys like the IBM Global CEO Survey, and a similar one from GE’s Global Innovation Barometer are uncovering the need for more creativity and innovation.   GE’s last survey reported that “95% of respondents believe innovation is the main lever for a more competitive national economy and 88% of respondents believe innovation is the best way to create jobs in their country.”

So if innovation is a growing imperative, we need a talent pool rich in innovators.  One of the fastest growing groups in the corporate world is the Millennials.    For many these people are a rich source of innovation talent — because they have grown up in the digital information age and are highly experienced in using technologies to learn, connect, collaborate and create on a daily basis.

But many organizations struggle with getting the best from them and are somewhat perplexed about the best ways to attract, motivate, reward, and retain them.  This young army of tech-savvy knowledge workers just doesn’t think the same way as do the Boomers of Gen X’ers who came before them.  It seems strategically important that executives everywhere learn about what makes them tick.

Who are the Millennials?

The Millennials are the generational cohort born from roughly 1980 to 2005, in an “echo” of the Boomer generation.  But as with other generations, it’s not the exact date of birth that matters as much as their mindset and transformative experiences.  The other names that the millennials go by illustrate: Generation Y, the 9/11 Generation, the Facebook Generation, etc.  Even prevailing popular culture neatly illustrates the difference. Which resonates more to you: the Beatles, Pearl Jam or America’s Idol?  How you answer is a pretty good indicator of which generation you belong to, not just because of differing musical taste, but because the symbolism that these three different types of music each evoke reveals the different mentality that Boomers, Gen X and the Millennials bring to the world.

The demographic power of the Millennials is far greater than many realize. This generational cohort is about 30% larger than the Baby Boomers in terms of raw numbers and three times the size of Generation X.  According to a recent article in TIME magazine, “right now, there are about 80 million Millennials and 76 million Boomers in America.  Half of all Millennials are already in the workforce, and millions are added every year. Approximately 10,000 Millennials turn 21 every day in America, and by the year 2025, three out of every four workers globally will be Gen Y.”

So if Millennials are an important future pool of talent in our organizations, how are they different from older generations?

What Attitudes Distinguish Millenials?

According to a Brookings Study on Millennials, Millenials communicate differently, sending an average of 79 electronic messages daily (email, tweets, blog posts etc.) Their number one source of news is web sites of the various news organizations.  Their parents are the most influential group in shaping their political views (with celebrities and faith leaders at the bottom of the list).  They admired FDR and Abraham Lincoln most highly as leadership role models.   Who was at the bottom? . . . celebrities, business leaders, military leaders and media moguls.   57.6% of them felt that the US is currently too involved in global affairs, and almost 75% of them believe the U.S. is no longer globally respected; its standing in the world has been tarnished over the last decade.   They as a group are almost equally divided on the question who will likely rule the world that you live in … between the US and China.  And interestingly, 71.1% of them said they would be interested in attending a public service university scholarship program that then required five years of government service after graduation.

 What do Millenials expect from the work place?

Another study called “No Collar Workers”  commissioned by MTV focused more on workplace attitudes.  Some of the responses are not surprising.  As they grew of on all forms of digital technology, they expect their workplace to be equally well equipped.   In addition they:

  • Want flexible work hours
  • Need more “me time” at work
  • Expect a constant flow of feedback on how they are doing
  • They are looking for mentors and coaches to give them career and job-related advice

Oh, and the really feel they should be able to wear jeans to work.

Here are perhaps some more interesting observations that came out of the MTV study.

 1)      They value collaboration over revolution.  Boomers were the protest and revolution generation, and they were voices for change.   Not so much for Gen Y.   They are not as driven by individual achievement and like the collaborative diverse experience that comes from working in teams.

2)      They value the work more than the money.  Half of the members of Gen Y surveyed said they would “rather have no job than a job they hate.” Among the top options for job desirability, “loving what I do” outranked salaries and big bonuses.

3)      They desire chances to be creative.  If not money, what do Millennials want most? The vast majority (83%) are “looking for a job where my creativity is valued,” while more than 9 in 10 Millennials are “motivated to work harder when I know where my work is going” and want supervisors, managers, and executives to listen to their ideas.

4)      They expect to be listened to.   While Millennials as a group are respectful of most adults and authority, they also feel strongly that they can teach even the CEO a thing or two.  The MTV study found that 76% of Millennials think their boss could learn a lot from them, compared to only 50% of boomers. Generally speaking, Millennials want to feel as though they’ve been heard, and that their opinions and insights matter.

5)      They want transparency. Another report, this one by Life Way Research reveals that transparency was one of the four characteristics millennials wanted in a leader.   This makes sense when you consider that Millennials heard their parents talk openly about everything from family finances to sex.   So, they expect the same openness from their managers and bosses at work   Millennials want to feel like they are part of a community at work—nearly 9 in 10 want a workplace to be social and fun—and have a genuine desire to listen into organizational strategy sessions. Instead of being a small cog unaware of any larger mission, Millennials like being in the loop regarding their company’s vision, and how it is going to innovate to stay ahead of the curve.

6)      They believe the work environment should be flat.   They see no reason for hierarchy or bureaucracy.   They value environments where companies are agile and act quickly to enact programs.  They aren’t impressed by big titles and executive perks.  This may be why most of them cite their most admired companies as ones like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

What does this mean?

Well, if your company is hierarchical, highly conservative, communicates poorly, doesn’t listen well to its employees, and operates in a top-down manner most of the time, you aren’t likely to appeal to this vitally important portion of the work force.   Did I mention that most millennials believe they will have multiple jobs (and employers) over their career?  They aren’t afraid to leave a job if it doesn’t enrich them.

Here is an enlightened TED talk called Millennials: Who are they and why do we hate them?

Other Related Articles

Managing Millennials: Be a Coach

What Does the Next Generation of Leaders Think?

Millennials Don’t Think Like Their Parents. How Do You Design For Them?

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?

Or, Can you relate to this?


Filed under Innovation, Leading, Managing Teams

Shackleton’s Amazing Leadership

Every so often, a story emerges that just captivates the imagination for its incredible un-believability. One such story is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, which I first read some 10 years ago. It captivated me then as it did on my recent re-reading.

The story starts in England, where Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is recruiting a crew to sail with him to the South Pole. By then, fabled British explorer Robert F. Scott had already perished with four of his colleagues in their attempt to be the first to reach it. Yes, such exploration was serious business. Lansing recounts that this is the classified ad Shackleton ran in London newspapers:


Kind of makes you wonder what kind of people would sign up based on that rosy depiction doesn’t it? In retrospect, they were precisely the right kind. The ship was named ENDURANCE, after the leader’s family motto “by Endurance we conquer.” I am sure Shackleton had no idea how prophetic that name would be.

The expedition would ultimately last nearly 25 months. For 19 of those months the crew would be trapped on the Arctic ice, hanging on to the slimmest chances for survival. Here is a brief Chronology of the Major Events during 1914-1916 Shackleton Expedition (A more detailed account follows on the map of the journey):

  • August 8, 1914: The Endurance sails from England. Spirits are high.
  • October 27, 1915: After nine long months trapped in the ice, the extreme pressures of the ice pack are more than the ship can handle. Endurance is crushed. The crew is in darkness, hearing water rushing in as they scramble out onto the ice. They are able to salvage some supplies and 3 tiny lifeboats as they abandoned ship and take up life on the foreboding ice. They are now even more alone, cold, without significant protection from the elements. Morale drops to a new low. Eventually, the crushed Endurance sinks, leaving the crew utterly alone with no hope of rescue or even communication with the outside world. Food is scarce. Eventually, they make it to Elephant Island.
  • April 24–May 10, 1916: Elephant Island may be dry, but it is frozen and without life to sustain them and away from any normal maritime routes. So, Shackleton decides to lead a small group of six who set off in the James Caird (one of the lifeboats) on a highly risky 800 mile journey in open sea. They are heading into a hurricane they had no way to know was coming. But they know that they must reach civilization if they are to survive. They also know that their navigation in that tiny boat over that great distance must be deadly accurate if they hope to reach South Georgia Island from whence they started in 1914. The storms take everything out of them, but they land (barely) on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station.
  • August 30, 1916: Shackleton secures a steam ship and is finally able to rescue the remainder of the crew he left behind 3 months earlier on Elephant Island. Not a single one of his 28 man crew dies throughout the entire ordeal.


So what do we learn from Shackleton?

Amazing Versatility, for one. You can imagine they trained extensively for the intended mission – a run to the South Pole. But once things went wrong, he knew survival dictated a shift in focus – at least two major shifts in mission as conditions went from bad to worse. He re-plans, and refocuses as needed in response to what he is facing.

Cool Objectivity. Once the initial mission was abandoned, he quickly and realistically assesses his new reality. He is prompt to recognize that idleness is a huge threat to crew discipline and morale. He responds by creating a new rigorous daily routine (even though we can imagine many might have asked “what’s the point?”).

Brave Front. He always projects confidence and hope when in front of the men. Several of his crew remark about this after their rescue. This seems remarkable given the circumstances. However he did leave a diary in which you see the insecurities and fears emerge. In one passage, he wrote “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly as the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.” One difficult leadership lesson, it seems to me is that we have to feed not only the team in our charge, but we must also feed ourselves so we may remain strong in difficult circumstances. Shackleton found a way to do this.

Forward Looking. Even when the crew finally set foot on Elephant Island, Shackleton knew that this was not the ultimate solution for them. While the others took time to revel in what they had accomplished, survival was not then assured. He immediately set his attention to the next stage in the adventure – to attempt to sail in a 22 foot lifeboat to South Georgia. It took three different attempts before he could break through the pack ice around Elephant Island and make it to open ocean. He never lost site of the mission – returning his crew to civilization.

Unshakeable Faith. No matter what inner demons Shackleton considered in his private moments, he seemed to dedicate himself fully to the best interests of his crew. The crew seemed to instinctively know that their “boss” was there for them no matter what. Even when some considered mutiny, Shackleton was willing to do whatever was necessary to assure the stability of the crew.

I highly encourage you to read the book and reflect on what it must have been like. Ask yourself if you could have endured? How would you have led?


Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership, Strategy

Managing or Leading. Who Cares? Let’s do Both.

The debate rages over leadership vs. management.  Those who lead are supposed to be both  inspiring and capable of strategic or “big picture” thinking.   Those who manage are expected to operate more in the trenches  and be more anal and detailed-oriented.  As a consequence most of us respond to a call to be leaders rather than managers, because leading seems more important and even less boring.

A common mistake is for us to perceive leaders as the people at the top of the organizational pyramid, while managers are in the middle of the organization where all accountability lies – driven by mountains of performance and financial data.

We believe that rather than focusing on the nouns (leader or manager) it is better to focus on the verbs – to lead or to manage.   Leading and managing are action items that EVERYONE in the organization must do.  Even if you are a first line supervisor, part of your role is to provide your people with a sense of purpose and direction.  Isn’t this leading?

When it comes to executing success, we all need to pay attention to details, collecting and analyzing information, and taking corrective steps when it seems we are drifting off course.   This is as true if you are a CEO and tracking the performance of a new acquisition as it is for a team leader trying to launch a new computer system somewhere in the bowels of the enterprise.

Whatever rung of the pyramid you inhabit, you need to draw on leading and managing skills which are BOTH vital and integral to each other.  We should think about it more as a pendulum where we swing back and forth between inspiring and controlling, challenging and monitoring, planning and problem solving.  This has to do only with the situations we face, not our job description.

In a recent article, Ericka Anderson, author and consultant, argues that to be effective in life, we all need to have leadership skills, that is, skills that tell others who we are and what we stand for,  such that those who see us deem us worthy of being followed.  Her list of key attributes is:

  • Far-Sighted (Means seeing beyond the moment to what’s coming up ahead, and recognizing the likely consequences of today’s actions.)
  • Passionate (It is not enough to be going through the motions doing what your boss commanded.  Our enthusiasm is infectious and builds momentum – particularly when the goal is worthwhile.)
  • Courageous (Who wants to follow someone who will “wimp out” at the first sign of adversity?  We admire bosses who have our back, will “go to bat” for us and speak truth to power.)
  • Wise (Being a nice person is not enough, when your ideas are “half-baked.”   We expect our leaders to do their homework, think deeply about what they are doing and making resulting good decisions, learn from their past triumphs and failures, and gets it right most of the time.)
  • Generous (We will recoil from leaders who appear to be all about themselves.   We desire those who will serve us, no matter how tired they are or how scare their resources may be.  They care about all of us even more than they do themselves.

These are described in detail in her related article: Leading Now and Always.   It is hard to argue with this list which to me adds up to building a sense of trustworthiness.

Developing and practicing these attributes requires reflection, self-evaluation, and a true connection with a value system that drives your own behaviors day in and out.  These come from within you and only work when you find your own trigger that gives you the resolve to live your life in accordance with what you believe to be true.

Managing skills, however, are more learnable, like becoming a good carpenter or chef.  And, with practice, you can become proficient.   There are tools, templates, methodologies you can learn about running meetings, managing projects, analyzing processes, controlling budgets and so forth.

I said earlier that managing and leading are integrated skills.   Here is one way they overlap.  Again, Anderson suggests that when we are acting more in a leading or a managing capacity, great leaders and great managers:

  • listen well,
  • are curious,
  • manage their self-talk, and
  • hold themselves accountable for moving the business forward

These things are at the intersection between leading and managing.  Leaders can craft compelling visions that inspire.  Managers can analyze situations and plot course corrections.  But these four behaviors define how you will interact with the people on whom you depend to make things happen.

So forget about your job title.   All of this needs to be in your job description.  It’s not someone else’s job, but yours.   Be both a great leader AND a solid manager.

1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

Lessons From The Front Line: Part 1 – Dealing With The Toxic Employee

I am in the middle of teaching another of our Exploring Dimensions of Personal Leadership program.  In it, one video I play is about the awesome food business in Ann Arbor, Zingermans, which was written up in INC Magazine and the NY Times as the “coolest small business in America”.

The video describes how Zingerman’s creates their fabled service culture.  Co-owner Ari Weinzeweg discusses some of the leadership steps that make it happen by focusing on specific behaviors built into their organizational “recipe” for providing great service.   He said from his experience, 5% of your employees will naturally deliver extraordinary service no matter what you do – since it is in their nature.  There is another 5% at the opposite end of the spectrum that will deliver terrible service, and the ones in the middle will be influenced by how you train, recognize, act, and reward them.   In one pointed moment talking about the bottom 5%, he offers the prescription: “you know what to do there, get rid of them . . . quickly”.

In class, the participants talked about this – about how one person who is not a team player or exhibits a “bad” attitude can easily drag down an entire team.   While every participant acknowledged that some people are like a cancer to the organization, and leaders need to address this problem; they also said it rarely happens in their own organization.

You probably know the reasons why it doesn’t happen, if you work in a mid to large-sized company or organization.   The guidelines and systems in place in most companies make it hard to fire someone.  We have to go through multiple rounds of documentation and coaching – to build a case that your HR officers and employment law attorney will bless.

For this particular group of (in my view highly motivated and effective) middle managers, they ALL said they tend to avoid the issues because it takes so much time and effort to follow established protocols.  I think they would all acknowledge that by doing so, they are accepting a certain level of “drag” on their organizational performance – like knowingly deciding to enter a race with barnacles on the hull of your boat.

It seems to me that we too willingly accept that this kind of organizational inefficiency EVEN when we are periodically faced with the need to cut budgets and streamline spending.  It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Now, I’m not trying to blame HR for this problem, and they have an equally compelling argument that we as managers often are remiss about sharing honest feedback with under-performing employees, which creates a greater chance for a wrongful termination lawsuit – which we don’t want either.

So there we are – both arguments have validity – but in the end, the team and the organization still suffer.  Here are some points to consider.

Some people are not coachable Many people do respond to coaching feedback and will try earnestly to modify their behaviors in response to legitimate, constructive input.  But, in my experience, some people are not coachable.  If your flaw is due to a deficient attitude or broken moral compass (rather than a deficiency in some skill knowledge) it can be really hard to change these things.   The door to change can only be opened from the inside, as they say.   Also, we as managers are a scarce resource.  We have limited time and energy and must decide where to spend it so that it delivers the best return.  I don’t think our job as managers is to FIX broken employees.  It is to communicate clearly what we want, provide the needed resources, offering guidance and help as needed.  After that, the rest is up to the employee to accept responsibility for his or her own performance – addressing any shortcomings they have.

Our employees must own their career and their own professional growth. In many companies it is the reverse.  We seem to believe we are obliged to act in a paternalistic way, treating our employees as if they were child-like.   Yes, we have an agenda of what we are trying to accomplish as a part of executing organizational strategy.  This may also suggest the need for training around new skills and behaviors.  In this case our job as managers is to offer the requisite training, but the employee is the one who has to decide if to take it.  They should have a choice.  If they don’t, they should understand that may make them redundant, but we should refrain from being coercive about it.

We should be willing to accept more lawsuits.  In my career, I don’t think I ever saw a case where my HR and legal advisors felt the documentation was sufficient to justify termination (barring the commission of a crime).  I understand their bias to help protect the company against legal challenges and bad publicity.  No one wants to get involved in a lawsuit.  That consumes resources and costs money.   But we need to consider the whole equation.   We can probably estimate how much a legal proceeding would cost (or its out-of-court settlement).    But, what is the cost of keeping the toxic employee?  I know it is hard to measure this expense, but we all can agree it is not ZERO.  It is likely larger than we imagined.  Why are we more willing to accept that expense than the threat of the legal challenge?   Looking back on many situations in my own business, I think we should have been willing to accept the risks of more lawsuits, leaning instead in favor of preserving the well-being of the whole team.  I keep thinking of the speech by Captain Spock in Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan when he tells Jim Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . or the one”.

Take seriously our obligation as managers to be honest.   I hear this comment also, that too often we as managers FAIL to accept our own responsibility to speak truthfully, frankly (and in some cases brutally) to employees who are not living up to performance or behavioral expectations.   The reasons are many – we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we fear an unpleasant confrontational outburst, or we don’t want to jeopardize work-in progress at crucial moments.    But whatever the reason, the outcome is the same.  Bad behaviors are perpetuated, and by our willingness to accept such behavior, we are also laying a foundation that makes it harder to take action down the road.   When we are inconsistent in our demands for performance, we expose ourselves to poor morale and more legal risks.   We need to be consistent, fair and honest. We must also be there to help employees if they respond with a request.

DON’T pass your problem child off.   I see this often in larger companies.   You didn’t want to deal with the whole endless process of documentation and improvement plans, so you tolerated the toxic employee.    Then you see a job posting in another part of the company or have the chance to influence a coming re-organization.  You pass on your problem child to another manager.  You rationalize it by saying “well, maybe in a different job role or with a different boss, that person might find their niche.”   Bull. You failed at your job, and you should be ashamed of yourself for not addressing your own problem.  You failed your team.  And, you failed your employee.

Final Thoughts

I know some of these concepts are harder to do than to write about.   But sometimes leading is not easy, and if these harder parts are not ones you are comfortable tackling, then maybe YOU should consider a change in your role.  You might also consider whether your subordinate managers or supervisors are not stepping up as they should.  If so, you have an important coaching session to complete.

I welcome opposing views on these thoughts.  It is a big issue in corporations everywhere.  This is something about which I think we should all be talking.

Leave a comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

Recognizing Employees Reveals More About Ourselves

I had an interesting conversation this week with a colleague of mine from Procter and Gamble. We were discussing how hard it is for organizations to make good decisions.   Often times, information is filtered from below (either because people are advocating for a particular viewpoint, or they would like to hide information that does not reflect well upon them or their department.)

Consider a case in which we do an initial test market and some of the data is unclear or conflicting . . . so rather than share all the data in the interest of transparency, we often will filter it, presenting what best supports our desired outcome.  Of course, the filtered data may be misleading and may bias others to make the wrong decision.  Oops.

We talked on about why people have a tendency to filter information in such a way.   Our conclusion was that we as leaders send strong messages by what we pay attention to and what we choose to recognize.  Our people quickly interpret these things and the conclusions they draw become broadly embraced.  These conclusions become the unwritten arbiters of how they expect us to behave.

We, as leaders, need to be cognizant of the fact that our actions and words (even our subtle signals like body language) are being scrutinized closely by our employees. If we aren’t careful, we can send out unintended signals.

Case Example

Here is one case in point.   In one company (not P&G), there was a major new project to launch an appliance product.   There were two important new technical innovations associated with this launch.  One had to do with a new painting system that had never been tried, and the other had to do with a new type of drive system that was expected to be cheaper, quieter and more reliable.   As the project went on, the paint system failed in all of its performance requirements.   The problems seemed to be compounding, and the launch date was threatened.   The team responsible for the paint process dug in, and put forth an amazing 11th hour effort that ultimately solved the problems and the launch deadline was met.

Management was so thrilled by the accomplishment and the successful ultimate product launch, that they felt it appropriate to recognize the paint system team for their herculean effort.   I am sure the paint folks appreciated the recognition, but what about the drive system team?   Their part of the project was completed the first time, and without a single technical “glitch”.  They were on time, and under budget, and yet did not merit even an honorable mention.  We can all, I think, relate to what that felt like.

My point here is not that the paint team was not worthy of praise. They were.   It is not that the drive team did their job only because they were anticipating recognition.  They weren’t.  My point is simply that by our actions as leaders, we send countless signals and micro-messages about what we think, value, and appreciate.    In fact, by our very actions, we are defining our organizational culture.

People pay a lot of attention to

  • Who we hire, and fire . . . or not.
  • Who we promote, demote . . . or not
  • Who we reward and recognize . . .  or not
  • And how we act in the case that something does not go right.

These are the things that define our culture, and WILL drive employee actions – for better or worse.


A great book that explores the topic of sending unintended messages was written by Stephen Young, called Micro-Messaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words.    So, should you sweat the small stuff?

“Absolutely”, says Stephen Young, “especially when it comes to those critical behaviors that can make or break performance. The reason is simple: no matter what you think you’re saying, your words, gestures, and tone of voice can actually communicate something entirely different. Too often, negative micro-messages undermine morale, business opportunities, and ultimately your organization.”

Micro-messaging examines the nuanced behaviors that we all blindly use and react to in our dealings with others. Yet as Young points out, these micro-messages can reveal a lot about our own-and our superiors’ biases and preconceived notions. Learning how to constructively address these behaviors can bring about positive change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

The Art of Consensus Building

Getting people to agree on anything is a challenge.

In crisis, you can rely on “management by fiat” (just decide on a course of action yourself and issue the command).  But, a little heavy-handedness goes a long way, and when you are not in crisis, people are prone to resent an overly autocratic style.  So, you are left needing to be good at reaching consensus if you want to move your agenda forward.  But, why is it so hard?

Let’s start by considering why people disagree, and the strategies that may help in each situation.

1. They do not see the situation in the same way We all look at any situation though our own lens.  Our perspectives are influenced by our different accumulated life experiences or are based on our organizational department (members of engineering, finance, IT, operations and sales – just as examples – all have a point of view based on the issues they face daily).   All of these views are “right”.  It helps to appreciate that they are so, based on different sets of data or assumptions.   The hard part is that the data and assumptions used by others are often hidden from our view.

Strategy:              Engage the broad group in a joint effort to collect data, define the problem, and research relevant facts.  (When we are all working from the same data set, it is much easier to find areas of agreement)  Many techniques are available to build a common platform of understanding.  Some include:  mind mapping, value stream mapping, doing joint research (on-line and by interviewing system participants) and sharing the data as you go.   Also, I like the idea presented by Steve Tobak in How to Build and Drive Consensus.  He says it is important that you use a formal process, and that all the participants understand what it is before you begin.  It should be one that is transparent and open, leading to a GROUP problem definition and action plan.   The process should include phases like: collecting information (group learning to inform everyone), defining the problem, developing alternative solutions, establishing criteria for evaluating them, evaluating the alternatives, and developing the execution plan.

2. They disagree on philosophical grounds.  Sometimes, people just disagree with an idea on principle.  Some people vote Republican, others Democrat.  Some believe in a woman’s right to choose, while others see abortion as murder.  Disagreements on principle generally run deep, and are very difficult to surmount.  Compromise is often impossible because all parties feel they cannot give up their core values and beliefs (just consider the stalemates that have been defining Federal policy making process lately in the United States).

Strategy:              Consider changing your agenda in favor of another where there is more common ground.  Or, wait for a crisis to occur, and use it as the common ground you need to gain consensus.

3. They are pursuing a different agenda.  Sometimes, while your idea or initiative has merit, other people have different agendas they feel are more important to them at this particular time.  These agendas may be driven by their boss, the company incentive system, your last performance appraisal, or promises you or your team have previously made.

Strategy:              Escalate this matter higher up in the organization to align priorities and goals. If your plan is truly for the good of the organization or the team, and you have sound, credible and compelling arguments in your favor, management will listen — especially if your plan is in alignment with their ultimate needs.

3. Interpersonal or emotional drivers.  Too often, our attitudes are colored by the way we feel about others, whether we like them, if we see them as a personal rival, how we judge their motivations, if we trust them, if we respect them and their abilities, and various other dimensions of company politics.

Strategy:              Form a guiding alliance of like-minded people before you begin, who share a common view and can form a core group with enough influence to press an idea even in the face of some resistance.  Accept the idea that gaining 100% buy-in may not be feasible, or may take more time and energy than you have.   Be willing to build enough momentum led by even a small group of passionate prophets to advance your idea.   In another helpful piece by Michael Wilkinson called Building Consensus The Art of Getting to YES,  he argues that you need to be willing to do some amount of one-on-one interfacing to help uncover the reasons for someone’s resistance, and seek to resolve them if you can.   (This article has several other helpful suggestions for managing disagreements as well.)

(Another interesting resource for those in the public sector is Consensus, Power and the Art of Getting Things Done by Otis White. White has several posts on related topics including forging a guiding coalition, the art of persuasion, and others.)

Also for those of you in the public sector, I would recommend the following YouTube video by Jeff Risley called Building Consensus: Overcoming Us vs. Them.  (It is 32 min long, and addresses the need to seek and exploit common value systems.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation, Leading, Managing Teams, Systems Thinking

Harbaugh’s Leadership – Keys to Victory

Great examples of strong leadership can come from anywhere.  For those football fans out there who were glued to their video screens this past weekend, you could not have asked for a more exciting playoff game than the one between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. It is hard to imagine a more stunning 36-32 victory over the supercharged Saints. The game featured four lead changes in the final four minutes, and five turnovers forced by the 49ers’ defense and special teams.  Yikes!

There was an interesting piece I saw on the Fox Sports web site called Harbaugh’s bond pushing 49ers sky high

It made some interesting points.

So what led to the victory?  Obviously, there were many talented players who turned in impressive performances, but I am drawn also to the impressive leadership of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh.

Here are some of the points I find noteworthy about Harbaugh’s leadership:

1)      He Inspires confidence – by his own example.

We all expect our leaders to have a competence about them. We want to believe they know what they are doing, and the more we observe their competent behavior, the more our respect and faith builds in them.   In Harbaugh’s case, he has been there, having served as a successful quarterback in the NFL for 15 seasons.  Imagine seeing him in 1996, when he was quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.  Harbaugh had a broken nose, a severely sprained wrist, turf toe, tendonitis in his ankle and a bruised heel. Of course he was still playing.  By his stoic example, he showed that he was a tough and worthy competitor to be admired and emulated.    We get the immediate sense that he asks nothing of his players that he did not first demand of himself during his own career.  What’s more, they all know it.

2)      He Creates a Positive Culture. 

Harbaugh’s relationship with his players creates a certain spirit.   Tight end Vernon Davis described after the game “[It is] such a great group of guys, coaches and players.  I think we love coming to work every day; I know I do. And we’ll get one more week at least.  I’m loving it.”

I suggest that creating a place where people WANT to come to work does not happen by chance.  It is the by-product of deliberate actions.    Harbaugh, from his experiences, knows what it is to win, and to lose.   He seems to have a fanatical belief in success that follows in his wake.

Tackle Joe Staley says it this way, We have confidence in this locker room. It might be surprising to the outside, but part of the culture that Harbaugh is instilling, we don’t care what anybody says on the outside, if they respect us [or not], if they like the way we play, if they don’t like the way we play. It’s all about the guys in this locker room.”  Read more about how Harbaugh’s infectious attitude affects his team:  Jim Harbaugh’s Impact on the Culture of the San Francisco 49ers.

Or, watch this 2 min You-Tube clip where you see classic Harbaugh giving a post game talk to his team in the locker room after their recent October victory over the Detroit Lions.

3)       His relationship with players is built on trust and respect. 

This weekend’s success required that first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who’d gone bust, Alex Smith, have uncompromised faith in each other.

No problem. “He’s authentic,” Smith said. “He’s an honest coach, and he coaches everybody the same way, no matter who you are.”

Their bond and its foundation of trust quickly spread throughout the roster, and team leaders such as tight end Vernon Davis, running back Frank Gore, left tackle Joe Staley, linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive tackle Justin Smith got right in line to inspire others. The confidence mushroomed, remarkable success followed and now, the unimaginable stands before them.

4)       He is humble. 

In the midst of all the media hype and in response to compliments he was getting from some of his players. Harbaugh immediately tossed the admiration right back to his players on Saturday, and nothing about his praise seemed disingenuous.  It was raw and it was sincere, just like the man explaining how much more meaningful a playoff win is to him as a coach rather than as a player.

Yeah, I would say it does. It means more. It means that these guys are my heroes, these players,” Harbaugh said on Saturday, almost breathlessly. “I grew up dreaming of being an athlete. Those guys that were athletes were my heroes.  [I] pretty much burnt up my childhood days thinking about that. That time’s passed me by now, but my heroes are still these athletes. Our guys and the way they play. I’m just really proud of them.”

Watch also this post-game locker room talk by Harbaugh after his team defeated the NY Giants back on November 13, 2011.  Watch his passion, and his comment about “humble hearts.”

We do not know what will happen in the next playoff game, but we do know that Jim Harbaugh and his 49er ball club will go into their next game against the NY Giants with a belief in themselves that perhaps has no rival.  I guess we have to say that this will not guarantee success, but I think it increases the odds.

And so, too, will these four behaviors help your team, not matter what your business is.

1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

Be a Better Leader Today: Some Easy Things to do That Don’t Cost a Thing

In our Dimensions of Leadership program, we like to expose people to video examples from other companies like Google, Zappos, IDEO, Mayo Clinic, Dominos, and Quicken – to mention a few.  Google, of course is an amazing example from Fortune Magazine’s list of Best Places to Work.  It’s no wonder they have achieved this status with their campus environment, empowering management style and lavish perks like free gourmet food and company massages.

A common reaction to this by participants is to say that their company could never be like that because (and you can fill in the blank____________).  Usually, it centers on the notion that it must cost a lot of money to treat employees the way Google or these other companies do.   They go on to comment about their being budget-constrained, having been through cut backs, or on a hiring freeze.

I think some people feel that such company behaviors are simply so far outside of their current corporate culture, we can’t imagine being more Google- or Zappos-like.   (I imagine most mid-level managers would be afraid to bring up this conversation for fear of being chastised or laughed at.)

I remember listening to a talk by Quicken Loans CEO Bill Emerson.  He presented their approach to this topic, and during the Q&A session one of the CEOs in the room said to him — “you can afford to do all these things for your employees because you are an internet company and have healthy profit margins. . . most of us here are in markets where our margins are being squeezed every day.  We just can’t afford to be like you.”

Emerson thought for a moment, and then replied “Sir. . . I certainly don’t pretend to understand your business or market . . . but from where I sit, I just don’t see how you can afford NOT to do things more like we do.”    In Emerson’s view it is a matter of FAITH, and going to great lengths to show employees that you value and appreciate them is the key to unleashing unparalleled loyalty, which will lead to better engagement, more productivity, and more innovation – thus improving business performance.

(Note, I certainly know some smart executives who do not think the companies I mentioned have a solution that would work for them, and I do respect that.)

However, it seems to me that a lot of what drives success has little to do with lavish perks.  In fact, here are a number of tips that cost nothing.   All they require is a mind-set on your part that they are important.   (See also a related article by Amy Levin-Epstein, “Become a Better Manager: 14 Simple Tips to Try Today”.)

Say Thank You.  When someone goes the extra mile, or simply does something you think embodies what you feel your culture and values should reflect, you should say something.   Our people pay attention to what we seem to reward and celebrate.

Lavish Praise Often.  US World Cup winning soccer coach Tony DiCicco put it this way: “[Our] job [as leaders] is to try to catch them (our employees) in the act of doing something right, and then make a big deal out of it.”  DiCicco learned along the way that some lavish praise works far better than “constructive criticism,” which is often not received as constructive at all.  If you can, do this publicly.

Get Over Yourself.  Sure, you got where you are by being good at analyzing problems and making decisions.  You probably take pride in it, and see this as the key way you offer value to your enterprise.  So you have a tendency to want to be involved in all decisions.  You feel you will do it faster and better than all others.  While this might actually true, your team will never develop unless you let go of the reins and you give then the chance to exercise their decision-making skills.  Think of yourself more as the person who creates environments within which your people can make better decisions by themselves.   Schedule brainstorming sessions, set up off-sites, assign problems to teams.  It IS NOT ABOUT YOU.  Your role is more that of cheerleader, coach, and facilitator.

Invest in Knowing Your People.  Allocate some time to speak to your team members about anything BUT work.   Ask them about their weekend, their kids, their hobbies etc.   As long as your interest in them is genuine, most people will appreciate that you see them as multidimensional and more than what their job title says.

Serve them.   Mabel Crawford, one of the best leaders I think I have ever observed, was a simple elementary school principal in urban Detroit.   Her school lacked resources, and her kids came from neighborhoods where the deck was stacked against them.   Yet her school performed as well as did schools in the wealthy suburbs.   She led with passion, caring and unfathomable energy.  One of her habits was to visit EVERY teacher in her building each day, and ask them what she could do that day that would help them.  One of the teachers remarked to me privately “We hardly ever ask her for things – since we know how hard her job is.  But we really appreciate that she is sincere when she asks us, and would go to the ends of the earth for us if we asked.   That knowledge is more than enough for me.”


Filed under Leading, Managing Teams