Friday, February 22, 2013

The Power of Managerial Courage

In every manager's life, there's a moment calling for strength beyond the routine.  There are times when managers, directors, leaders, VPs must simply stand firm.

I define Managerial Courage as the willingness to state unpopular truth which may cause personal risk.

The amount of courage required is proportional to the number of people who will be adversely affected by the truth, especially those who are of higher rank in an organization. 

When Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) said "You can't handle the truth!" he meant some realities are very hard for others to hear.  

What moments require this sort of courage?
  1. When a costly project is sorely off track and likely to get worse without intervention.
  2. When an employee has been put into an awkward circumstance by managers with much more power (I am not referring to harassment, I am referring to managers asking employees to make decisions that are well above their pay grade because managers don't want to make a decision).
  3. When no one else in the room will state what everyone knows to be the truth.

Some cautions:
  1. Raw honesty sometimes causes others to cringe and run for the exits.  I have seen people make harsh statements about a project without considering diplomacy and professionalism.  Even bad news needs to be delivered without drama.
  2. Know your stuff.  If you shoot your mouth off without facts, you'll be heading for the exits ... or at least some backwater job for a long time.
  3. Don't repeat Old News.  If you're just into grandstanding by repeating the obvious, you're not being courageous - - you're being stupid. 
What's in it for you?

  1. Not all, but many of the people I have worked for the past decades actually welcome truth.
  2. Respectful managerial Courage is admired by upper level executives - they live it every day or they're gone.
  3. Done properly, your courage will build your a reputation as someone who cares deeply about the success of your organization. 
In the words of Ringo Starr - "It don't come easy." 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Leadership Hazard: New Wine in Old Wineskins

When stepping into a new leadership role, this Biblical concept is an exceptionally powerful lesson to all leaders, not just the religious leaders among us.

The analogy is very direct: there is a risk to putting fresh wine that is still fermenting into an old wineskin.  Ultimately, the old wineskin will not be able to hold the new wine, and it will burst.

Here's the corollary:  Quite often, leaders will take ideas they have seen used with success elsewhere and attempt to use that idea in a new setting.  But as the proverb warns, those ideas may burst ...

Sometimes the idea is called a  "Best Practice" (a blog entry unto itself for another time.) 

Leaders who have been successful in one setting attempt to apply the same leadership style, metrics, organizational structure and team dynamics they have used in the past and assume they will attain the same level of success.  I have observed it many times over forty years. 

Why do some leaders follow their old ways and expect success?  Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

  1. Ego Blindness - They are certain of future success based on a previous accomplishment.
  2. Uncertainty - They're unsure what to do in their new circumstance, so they default to a former success.
  3. Undisciplined thinking - Perhaps they believe one size fits all.
  4. Vicarious Modeling - When leaders see one of their methods being used by someone else in the same corporation, they may mistakenly believe their old method will work for them in their new setting.

Yet every scenario, every setting, every circumstance, every leadership arena we face has it's own special form of organ rejection, it's own set of risks, and it's own weird set of organizational allergies to our craft.

A few thoughts:

  1. A structured, time-tested approach is always a good starting point, but not the end point.
  2. Nothing will replace good old-fashioned vigilance and common sense when stepping into a new leadership role, irrespective of past successes.
  3. We are energized as leaders when we take on a new role and try different approaches that fit a new circumstance.
  4. People know if we're including their thinking process and input as we work with them in a new setting, or if we're just 'checking a box'.  (Very damaging to our reputations as leaders).  In OD parlance, we call that "the illusion of participation." 
Ancient wisdom is always worth considering, and as leaders, this particular caution is as salient as the day it was spoken. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Priceless Value of Leadership Humor

When I am asked about qualities I value in a leader, people are often surprised to hear me say ...
"A leader needs a good sense of humor."
Why would a sense of humor be a key trait in a good leader?
  1. People are under radical stress in the workplace.
  2. People work incredibly long hours.
  3. People give their lives in support of a job.
  4. People lose precious family time in support of the workplace.
  5. People's lives outside the workplace are often complicated ... adding to the stress (Work-Life Balance anyone?)
  1. Humor can be perceived as disrespect, lewdness, and crass behavior ... leading to harassment charges.
  2. Humor diminishes the seriousness and gravity of the work.
  3. Humor demeans a leader and turns him or her into a class clown.
  4. Humor can be misperceived in a global environment.
I take each in turn ...
  1. Lewd behavior and humor has no place at work (or anywhere else ... but that's my personal bias in favor of respect for others).  Clearly, any humor that harms another individual or causes someone to be uncomfortable is out of place.  But that's not the kind of humor I'm talking about ... I'm talking about having a bit of fun in the midst of stress.
  2. When the situation requires gravity, the leader knows it, the people know it, and they all sense the need for seriousness ... but ... a constant pressure of seriousness belongs elsewhere.  People need to laugh now and then ... "comic relief" is valuable in the workplace. 
  3. If a leader is CONSTANTLY cutting up, he or she will lose the respect of the people ... but ... an intelligent quip at the right time not only adds to a leader's persona, it makes him or her ... ready? ... "human".  With the exception of warfare I can't imagine a place where the occasional quip is out of place. 
  4. In a global environment, things don't often translate well ... but ... if you explain a joke or concept ... people across the world love to laugh!  One of my greatest victories ever was to tell a joke cross culturally with a group of Japanese business people who laughed very heartily at a punchline ... through an interpreter.
Leadership humor is free, but it is also priceless.  Effective humor endears people to a moment, because laughter is good for the soul.  It eases pain, refreshes and adds energy when needed. 
Never underestimate the motivational power of leadership humor ...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Quick Self-Evaluation for Managing Change

Here are the areas you need to master to effectively manage change:

Rank your competence:  10 is outstanding, 5 is mediocre, 1 is poor. 

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Leadership
  3. Self-Control
  4. Self-Discipline
  5. Interpersonal Awareness
  6. Emotional Intelligence
  7. Public Speaking
  8. Persuasion
  9. Inspiring others to exceed their limits
  10. Managing Group Dynamics
  11. Managing Team Relationships
  12. Managing Communications with Upper Management
  13. Managing Communications with Staff
  14. Managing Communications with Line Workers
  15. Vision Casting
  16. Managing Conflict
  17. Setting Team Expectations
  18. Managing Team Expectations
  19. Recognizing accomplishments
  20. Managing those who will not engage
  21. Managing Organizational Dynamics of Coordinating Competing Agendas (worth 100).
  22. Budget Management
  23. Resource Management
  24. Project Management
  25. Time Management ...
How did you do?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Organizational Mythology #4 - All Projects Are Created Equal

Most Organizations develop initiatives every year around Strategic Plans.  It's a normal, logical thing to do.   We have a plan, we need to staff and invest to achieve those plans.

Teams are assembled, and work begins.  But not all plans are created equal ... to quote Hamlet: "Aye, there's the rub." 

Why do organizations invest in projects even when it becomes glaringly obvious that those projects are not yielding expected ROI?

Here are some observations:

  1. TEACHER'S PET PROJECTS: It's someone's pet project ... typically a high level executive.
  2. HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL PROJECTS: So much money has been spent to get it off the ground that people are reluctant to shut it down. "Maybe if we just add a few more people."
  3. TOOK YOUR EYES OFF THE BALL PROJECTS: In some circumstances, people aren't paying attention to the project at all.
  4. HAMSTER WHEEL PROJECTS: BAU (Business as usual) prevents people from seeing the forest for the trees.
  5. DON'T BRING ME BAD NEWS PROJECTS: Someone can't (or won't) believe it is failing and will not accept failure.  [Gene Krantz persona ... but this isn't Apollo 13]. 
Yet organizations cannot continue to invest in the human effort, financial costs and missed opportunities associated with projects that are not bringing in the forecasted ROI.

What to do?

While ruthlessly axing projects is nearly as deadly as ruthlessly axing people, organizations that want to succeed must be honest about failure.

After honesty comes a willingness to say "We're done with this.  Let's focus somewhere else."

Why won't people do that?

  1. Fear that someone will be offended.
  2. Fear that someone's job will be lost.
  3. Fear that one's own job will be at stake.
  4. Uncertainty due to a lack of hard data about project effectiveness.
  5. Lack of interest.
#4 is the only acceptable reason for caution when axing a project.  The others are excuses which can cause further catastrophic failures and losses in an organization.

Sometimes the only way to bring these issues to the surface is to bring an outside resource to examine the details and make recommendations.

Take a serious look at the initiatives you currently have underway.  Are those initiatives making the best use of your resources, time, energy and human motivation? 

Unlike people, not all projects are created equal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Organizational Mythology #3 - Training Changes Organizations

Although billions of dollars are spent in training sessions every year, the hard reality is this: Training, by itself, doesn't change organizations.

Where does the mythology arise that training is a solution to everything?

  1. Perceptual default to familiar classroom settings where information was shared.
  2. Conviction that employees will change their leadership, management, work habits if they simply attend a seminar.
  3. Managerial frustration with a current situation can motivate leaders to send people to training.

What do we observe in our own training experiences?

  1. We often gain awareness of a perceived gap in knowledge.
  2. We may be energized to try something new after we sit through a workshop.
  3. Many of the three ring binders of material (or online workshops) we reviewed gathered dust over time.
  4. It takes much effort to integrate new knowledge within the DNA of an organization.
So how can training be used?

Learning changes organizations, not training.

  1. Training is an adjunct to organizational learning.  It is a helper to bring awareness.
  2. Managerial support of new learning is critical for the 'training' to take hold.
  3. Repetition is the mother of learning ... training must be repeated (irregular intervals are best!)
  4. Distributed practice is best ... short sessions of intense learning are superior to long, exhausting sessions.
How should organizations use training for maximum impact and ROI?

  1. Use training in the context of change, as a critical part of learning the new system, new roles, and new processes.
  2. Use training developed specifically for the project at hand - not a cookie-cutter version. 
  3. Follow-up or foul up.  Reinforcing learning is essential to integrating training into the culture.
As a trainer, I endorse training for it's value; as a manager, I endorse training as a necessary part of a greater solution; as a leader I recognize the importance of truly integrating training into the DNA of my company through repetition, accountability for learning and follow-through.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Organizational Mythology #2 - Leaders are Made, not Born

Leadership is a subject of endless debate.  Even defining good leadership is a topic with as many variations as there are authors, but one key 'belief' has surfaced over the past few years:

"All leaders are made, not born." 

I'll risk the peril of being a sociological gadfly, but here goes: that statement is patently false.  It is a mythology.

While I'll admit that leaders can change over time and become better at leading, I categorically reject the idea that all leaders are made, not born. 

Here's my take on the premises behind the statement:

  1. Let's have everyone believe they can be a great leader ... so no one is left out.
  2. The self-esteem movement has taken it's toll on common sense ... and we feel that we may injure someone's feelings by telling them "you don't have the right stuff.'
  3. A belief that, in the right circumstances, anyone can 'lead'. 
  4. Corporate propaganda designed to build employee engagement.  "We are all leaders." 
There are several problems with the notion that all leaders are made ...

  1. Many folks flat out don't want to lead - it's scary, takes too much time, and too much effort, and carries too much risk.  They would rather complain about the leaders they have than become a target for criticism and rejection.
  2. Some people who try to lead - - -  because they have been told they could - - -  turn out to be miserable failures, negatively impacting scores and maybe hundreds of people.
  3. The skill of leading - coordinating multiple competing egos, ensuring achievement of a major goal by influencing people who do not report to you, and taking the blame for things that go wrong, is an ominous responsibility requiring emotional stamina, confidence (not ego), and plain old-fashioned skill.

Here's what the doctor thinks:

  1. Good leaders show up early in life.  They have a natural command of their domain, and they understand how to solve problems.  Some of them may become despots, but most understand the need to negotiate to gain an outcome.  (Study your average Kindergarten and you'll see what I mean.)
  2. Good leaders thrive on leading and achievement motivation (there's a fair bit of research that back up this point).
  3. Good leaders cannot help but lead.  Doesn't matter where they are, in business, volunteer settings, small groups ... they naturally sense how to bring order out of chaos.
  4. Good leaders know how to tap into the natural abilities of those who do not want to lead ... but want to follow someone (more likely some thing ... possible future) that they believe in.
  5. Employees know when they are being fed 'jargon' to help them feel good.  People are smart, and the continual dispensing of a mythology around everyone having common capabilities just doesn't hold up in the eyes of most people. 

Our penchant to want everyone to 'feel good about themselves' as leaders is an admirable, though misguided notion.  And over time, throughout the history of every major corporation, leaders emerge and develop teams and wonderful business plans and outcomes.  Others attempt to lead and find themselves in a death spiral of ineffectiveness.  Not everyone can lead ... some must follow. 

Your organization can benefit from helping those who lead well to lead even better, and helping those who support them to do so at white hot levels.   In that way, everyone wins.  Isn't that what we want for our organizations?