Leadership – Not Always Simply a Matter of Style

This post is for you leaders of leaders. Those of you who have the responsibility and authority to select, coach, and replace other leaders within your organization. And a warning … it’s a bit of a rant.

Some years ago I worked with a manager from another company. I’ll call him Tom. Tom was intelligent, efficient, honest, ethical, and all things considered, a decent guy. He had inherited a solid, dedicated team, but there were several inefficiencies that had been allowed to fester under the previous manager. Tom took this team in hand, dealt with the inefficiencies and in the end, accomplished more goals with fewer resources. This was one of this strengths. Another was the fact that Tom took responsibility for his team and regardless of any criticisms might give in private, he always had their backs in public.

Tom wasn’t perfect though. He was brusque. He wasn’t always clear in conveying his visions or expectations and often gave conflicting directives. He expected people to read his mind and was quick to anger when people didn’t demonstrate the necessary clairvoyance. And he had trust issues and would yank authority away from someone as quickly as he gave it to them. His behavior wasn’t a function of the team he inherited. He handled the people that he hired after taking over the position in the same way. In the end, the negatives overwhelmed the positives, fear and frustration became dominant emotions in the office, many of the lower-level managers became too afraid to make any decisions and the sense of team gave way to a sense of everyone-for-themselves.

Tom’s shortcomings as a leader are actually not at issue here. We all struggle at some point. We all need a little coaching and education. We all have some bad habits that need to be kicked. We’re all human. What was horrifying to me was that his behavior did not change noticeably over the seven years he held the position. Now for the most part, I observed the situation from the sidelines, so I don’t know if Tom’s bosses ever tried to correct the issues. I suspect not because other than a slight moderation of the behaviors, they persisted throughout his tenure. But I do remember hearing from a several people something along the lines of “What are you going to do? It’s just his leadership style.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment and it certainly hasn’t been the last. And I haven’t heard it exclusively from those who suffer under a struggling leader and have little hope of affecting change. I’ve also heard it from those who are in charge of the struggling leader. People who have EVERY hope of affecting change. And therein lies the problem.

All too often we shrug off any kind of leadership deficiency as a part of “Leadership Style”. Something to be left up to the individual and not tampered with. To be sure, there is such a thing as Leadership Style. It can legitimately refer to one of the defined Leadership Styles (Autocratic, Democratic, Delegative, Transactional, etc.) that describe a general approach to managing a specific team for a specific project. I also think of it as the personal style that a leader uses in executing the requirements of their position. To me, Leadership Style is how you accomplish your job. However, accomplishing certain aspects of your job but failing to accomplish others is not a matter of style.

For example, let’s say my job were to stack a thousand bricks in the shape of a cube within an hour. Defined task (stack the 1,000 bricks), defined time frame (in an hour), and defined results (shape of a cube). But instead of stacking all 1,000, let’s say I only stack 500 and then stop. Or instead of stacking them in a cube I create a clever mosaic. Or let’s say I make the 1,000-brick cube, but it took me half a day instead of just an hour. That’s not me demonstrating my style, that’s me failing to do my job. Tom’s shortcomings had nothing to do with his Leadership Style. It wasn’t Tom’s style of communication that was the problem. It was the fact that he didn’t communicate clearly in the first place. It wasn’t the way that Tom create a sense of team that was the problem. It was the fact that instead of creating a sense of team, he created an everyone-for-themselves atmosphere. And to be honest, the real problem wasn’t even these lapses in Tom’s leadership. It was that the people who put Tom in his position in the first place wrote off his deficiencies as “well, that’s just his style” instead of coaching him and helping to fix them.

There are certain aspects of leadership that are every bit as important as any defined goal. Communicating, being consistent, acting ethically, walking the walk, providing a vision, etc. These are the things make or break your success as a leader. These are the things that determine not only if you achieve your goal, but also whether you have the resources left (e.g. people) to tackle the next one. How these things happen might be open to interpretation and style. If these happen is non-negotiable.

That Jane communicates mostly via text and email, relying on face-to-face only for the important stuff is a matter of style. That Ralph incorporates bits of humor in his state of the company address is a matter of style. That Jeremy holds weekly status meetings, but Mary keeps an updated project blog … matters of style. That Steve does not communicate at all is not a matter of Leadership Style. It is a failure of leadership.

That Mark motivates people by getting into the trenches besides them and leading by example is a matter of style. That Scott has regular team-building lunches … style. That John keeps the troops in line by fear with a “you’re lucky to have a job” attitude is not a matter of style. It is a failure of leadership.

You might sense that I’m fairly passionate about this topic. I have two primary reasons for this. First, you have likely made a huge investment in selecting and/or building that leader and the team they’re leading. Whatever discomfort you might feel at having to coach a leader in their job (especially when it’s someone with a lot of experience and an impressive resume) is nothing compared to the agony of having to fire that person after the damage is done. Those scars linger on an organization for a long, long time.

Second, the impact of poor leadership reverberates throughout an entire organization. The poor leader is already doing nasty things like setting a bad example, driving away good staff, hurting efficiency, killing morale, etc. But when the people who have the authority and responsibility to do something about it are reluctant to correct the situation, it adds another level of tacit approval that just compounds the effects.

So whether you’re a board selecting a president from amongst your peers, a civic group hiring a director, a group leader promoting a new project manager, or even an electorate who has chosen their representative … take responsibility for your selection, make sure that they’re leading and avoid considering deficiencies as simply a matter of their style.

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Leadership Foundations

If you’ve spent any time researching the topic of leadership (and I’m sure you have if you’ve stumbled upon this obscure little blog) then you’ve noticed the wealth of information available. I mean, the results from a single internet search are mind-numbing. Hundreds of books. Thousands of blogs. Subject-specific, industry-specific, career-oriented, people-oriented, how to, how not to … let’s just say it’s a hot topic. As my wife would say, it’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. I have a difficult time just staying up to date on the twice-daily newsletter I subscribe to and the miscellaneous stuff that crosses my desk. Reading everything that’s out there? Not a chance.

But despite the depth of information and the number of people writing about leadership, I find that there is a surprisingly high level of agreement on the topic. To be sure, everyone’s focus is a little different and everyone has their own unique “war stories” that color their presentation of the material. And while I do run across an occasional outlier (my favorite is a discussion on why manipulating your employees is a good leadership tool), I’m finding as a general rule that it’s variations on a theme. Communication, morality, building teams, having a vision, solving problems, being open to change, doing what you say, hiring the right people, etc. The same good leadership traits come up again and again, as do the same bad ones.

Of course, everyone has their own hot buttons when it comes to leadership. Things that matter to them above all else. And like everyone else, I have my list. Things that, in my opinion, a leader must do, be or understand in order to lead effectively. As my future posts dig deeper into specific topics, situations and personality traits, understanding what I consider to be paramount issues will help to put things into context and give you a better frame of reference on where I’m coming from.

  • Be Aware – Watching an unaware leader is like watching an old comedy where the guy is carrying a 20-foot long board on his shoulder. You know the ones: he attempts to maneuver the board from point A to point B at the expense of everyone around him. Heads get bonked, ladders toppled, windows broken, and there is general mayhem and destruction wherever he goes. All of which he is painfully clueless to. This is the unaware leader. They have found themselves in a position as leader but are completely unaware of what that means. They are blind to the fact that what they do and how they do it has impacts and consequences. In my mind, this is as simple as saying to yourself: “Hey, I’m a leader. People pay attention to what I do and how I do it. I guess I should, too!” Being aware of your position doesn’t in itself make you a good leader, but without that self-awareness you don’t stand a fighting chance of pulling it off.
  • Actively Learn – None of us come into leadership with all of the skills we need, perfectly honed and ready for action. None of us. I’m not saying that you don’t have some pretty awesome leadership skills. After all, if someone placed you in a leadership position with the intent that you actually lead, then I guarantee that they saw in you something great. What I am saying is that what they saw in you wasn’t someone who was perfect for the job, but someone who will be. They saw potential. Show me a person who is stagnant in their leadership skills and I will show you a person who, under the perfect circumstances, with the perfect team, the perfect boss and the stars aligning will be a successful leader. Maybe. Show me a person who is introspective, willing to learn on a daily basis, and active in pursuing learning opportunities and I will show you someone who can lead any team, anywhere.
  • It’s About People – Common to all leadership positions is the mission to lead others. Whether your goal is to someday earn a C-level position (COO, CEO, CMO, etc.) or you’re content to successfully lead your team of three, your success and rewards are directly related to the success of the people you’re leading. Get them from Point A to Point B with good leadership (sharing your vision, communicating, empowering, holding people accountable, etc.) and everyone’s rewards are greater. Get them from Point A to Point B through fear, coercion, manipulation and stealth and if you finally get to Point B your rewards will be lesser.
  • It’s About Team – I am a huge fan of understanding your people, working through issues, and making them a successful part of the team. You’re going to run into a lot of different people and often times the personality quirks that make someone a challenge to work with hide a brilliance that you would be foolish to discard out of hand. And if you can work through the issues, tap into that brilliance and do it without sacrificing the whole team, then you have achieved something great. But the pragmatic engineer in me knows that there’s a limit to how much time and effort you can invest in tapping that brilliance and still achieve the goals set for you. The fact is, you have limited resources. You only have so many hours in a day and you can’t afford to spend 90% of your time coaxing along 10% of your people. Leading is about the team every bit as much as it is about the individual and while it’s a hard pill to swallow, you need to be prepared to put team first.
  • Do What You’re Asking Others to Do – As a leader, you’re often the one laying out the rules that you expect others to follow: the organization’s rules, your own personal rules, rules of good practice, ethical standards, etc. Want to make sure that no one follows them? Then don’t follow them yourself. I get it. I really do. You’re swamped. You’re cleaning up messes. You’re putting out fires. You’re getting pulled in all sorts of directions that make doing what you’re asking others to do really, REALLY difficult. There will be times (especially when it comes to administrative tasks) that you’re going to have to stretch the rules (e.g. submitting your timesheet a day late). But if you suspend for yourself the rules that you’re asking others to abide by, you do great damage to your credibility as a leader. Don’t give yourself a pass simply based on your position. Furthermore, don’t allow those above you to give you a pass. If those above you do not hold you accountable, then you need to hold yourself accountable.
  • Learn to Communicate – I have yet to see any guidance that says “don’t bother to communicate” or “communication is for sissies” or anything similar. Honestly, it is startling to me that an issue so vital to the success of a leader and an organization is received by some people as a suggestion. It is an imperative. All of the good ideas in the world mean nothing if you can’t communicate them to people. I know that not everyone is good at this. All I can say is work at it. Work at it. Work at it. Even poor communicators can improve over time with practice. There is hope!
  • Be Consistent – In my opinion, inconsistency in a leader is generally a sign of: ongoing learning/growth (I have more data or a different understanding today than I did yesterday); a double standard or favoritism (I treat people based on how much I like them); manipulation (I make decisions and statements based on what I need at the time); sycophantic behavior (my inconsistency is a reflection of my boss’s inconsistency, because I do exactly what they do); or cluelessness (I’m just making it up as I go and tomorrow I won’t remember what I did or said today). The only one of these reasons I can get behind is the first one. No one can have all the data possible for every decision point. We learn, ruminate, grow and sometimes at the end of the day, change our minds. This is, in fact, a good thing. The rest …? Let’s just say it’s not a good sign.

So these are the things that matter most to me in leaders. You might be new at this, but if you understand these things, you will be okay. The rest will come. Are there people who occupy leadership positions who lack some or all of these foundations? Absolutely. Will their organizations survive their “leadership”? Maybe. But I will tell you this: if the organization survives, it will be in spite of them not because of them.

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A Note About People

You may have noticed that I write a lot in my posts about the nature of people:  how we react to things; what we think; what our tendencies are; what motivates and demotivates us; etc.  I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, or any other “-ist” of the social sciences whose study and practical experience is focused on people and interpersonal interaction.  And I certainly don’t have a pristine track record when it comes to positive and constructive communication (oh, how I cringe at my more spectacular communication fails).  But failure gives us a chance to learn, opportunity gives us a chance to practice, and I have been fortunate to have had enough of both to pick up a few things over the years.

I think we’re all in agreement that leadership is all about people.  More specifically, leadership is all about other people.  If Fred is out in the woods and there is no one to lead, is he still a leader?  Maybe in his heart, sure.  And maybe at some future date, someone will be inspired by the good actions that Fred took when absolutely no one was looking.  But from a practical standpoint, no.  Fred’s on a solo mission.

So if it’s all about the people you lead, I’ll go out on a limb and say that dealing with people is your most important job as a leader.  And having written that, it seems a little ridiculous to me that in the “old days”, people in leadership positions didn’t seem to need much in the way of interpersonal skills.  Shouting, bullying, and other inappropriate behaviors were typical “leadership techniques” for the big boss.  I’m not saying everyone was that way, but I’ve had enough of the old-style bosses to know that it was fairly common.  Today, bad behavior like that is not often tolerated and leaders really need those interpersonal skills to be successful.

So what do you do if you find yourself in a leadership position but “dealing with people” is not your strong suit?  Or even in your toolbox?

First thing to do … learn from your experiences.  This may seem a bit obvious, but all too often the last thing we want to do after a difficult interaction is to relive it in a mental play-by-play.  Your heart was pumping, your tongue was tied, your face was flushed, and fight-or-flight was fully engaged.  We either want to be as far away from the memory as possible or we focus our efforts on validating our position.  Instead, we need to take a hard look at these interactions and ask what we brought to the table.  What attitude, preconceived notion, or baggage did we bring with us, how did these show themselves during the interaction, and how did the other person react to them?  For me, I often find a double standard that I didn’t know I was applying.  Once you have a handle on your role in a negative interaction, go talk to the other person about it.  Own your mistakes and be the first to do it.  It’s one thing to apologize in general about a situation, but people are much more forgiving when you know exactly what you’re apologizing for.

In addition to taking stock in what your own experiences have to teach you, try to develop a broader understanding about how people communicate and interact.  Research online, take a class, or talk to a mentor.  And do it all with an open mind.  You may be surprised that some things you think are no big deal are huge to most other people.  The following are some tidbits that I’ve learned through the years:

  • People will listen or not listen based on the tone and approach that you take.  You might be thinking:  “Hey!  A fact is a fact and people should accept and process those facts no matter how I deliver them.”  There are times when I’ve thought the same things.  But we just don’t work that way.  If your goal is to have people consider what you have to say (and this should be your goal if your plan is to lead), then you have to present things in a way that doesn’t cause them to shut you out.
  • People don’t like to be judged.  We have a strong desire to understand and quantify the world around us, including other people.  When someone does a thing repeatedly, we make note of it and use that information to help us make predictions about their future actions.  Sometimes we take this to the next step and ascribe specific motivations or character traits to explain their actions.  Taken to the extreme (and this happens all too frequently in our society), this can result in demonizing a person (they can do no right) or idolizing them (they can do no wrong).  And while I believe this is a natural part of being human, this is in fact, judging.  And the problem is not so much that we make these judgments as it is that we take action on them, affecting how we communicate with them, how we discuss them with others, how critical we are of their work, etc.  It may not be possible to silence our internal judge.  We may just be hardwired this way.  But as a leader you cannot afford to qualify the way you interact with people based on your judgment of them.
  • People want to be heard.  I think this one is fairly straightforward.  Be quiet.  Listen (without trying to formulate your next statement or rebuttal).  Don’t interrupt.  Restate the other person’s point in your own words.  Formulate a thoughtful response that’s specific to the situation.  Be fully invested in the conversation and don’t patronize.  If you don’t allow an issue to be fully aired, it will never go away.  And even if you don’t give someone what they want, that you listened to them and responded accordingly is generally enough to satisfy that need to be heard.
  • People want to be convinced.  There is a time for debate and a time for an executive decision (often after an inconclusive debate).  People want to understand your position every bit as much as they want you to understand theirs.  They want to know that their argument lost to a better one.  This helps them to move on from their position and commit fully to the new one.  Don’t “win” a debate by either exerting your position (“I’m a board member and that’s just how it’s going to be”) or by being aggressively assertive (“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I’m right!”).  If you can’t make the argument to support your position over another position, then maybe your position isn’t the best one.
  • People want consistency.  People want predictable and consistent behavior, communication, correction, reward, opportunity and resources.  An inconsistent leader causes uncertainty, which in turn causes stress.  People truly have enough to worry about in their jobs without trying to figure out what an unpredictable leader will do.

Everyone is truly different and there will always be a new personality challenge to deal with.  But there are still many “truths” to people that we can learn and use to bolster our people skills.

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Leadership Environment

There are some days when it feels as if all we hear about are bad leaders.  I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill bosses who don’t quite get it, but are otherwise good people. I’m talking about the habitually, chronically, fatally bad leaders.  Business leaders who gain illegally at the expense of others.  Elected officials who are so consumed at securing their own futures that they fail to actually govern.  Coaches who belittle and rage instead of inspire and teach.  Celebrities who equate fame with entitlement.  I honestly don’t know if it’s more prevalent than it was in the past, if today’s society is more accepting of these behaviors, or if the only thing that’s changed is that we just hear about it more often.  What I do know is that the ability of really bad leaders to consistently rise to the top of their organizations is absolutely horrifying.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, leading is not a walk in the park.  It’s difficult, fraught with pitfalls, and those who enter the arena will make mistakes.  But to me, it’s not the mistakes that make a person a chronically bad leader.  It’s the willful decision to repeat, perpetuate, and/or ignore those mistakes that does.  That Fred berates a direct report in front of others is a single bad action that can be remedied with an apology and some personal growth.  That Fred regularly does this despite all guidance to the contrary is willful and, in my opinion, unconscionable.  And right now, there seems to be an abundance of “Freds” out there.

All it really takes for chronically bad leaders to advance is for the bad leader to step forward and for everyone else to step back.  I don’t mean to imply that for each situation we hear about there was a culture of complete passivity that simply “let it happen”.  To be sure, with every story about a chronically bad leader we also hear about the people who attempted to sound the alarm but were ignored.  What I am saying is that chronically bad leaders thrive in certain environments, and since we all contribute to the environments in which we work, we do have some control over the situation.  If we fail to do our part in creating the right environment, we are complicit in the successful rise of the chronically bad leader.

Creating an environment in which chronically bad leaders can’t gain traction is easiest to do if you’re the person at the top.  You’re the one setting corporate culture and you have control over which behaviors are tolerated and which ones aren’t.  However, even if you’re at the bottom of the organizational food chain, there are still things you can do that will create the right environment for good leaders to thrive.

• Communication – Chronically bad leaders thrive where there is poor communication.  Information can be parsed out and manipulated with minimum fear that staff will compare notes.  It’s also difficult for people to question the direction the organization is going when there’s insufficient information on what that direction is and what decisions are being made to achieve it.  Open and honest communication from the top down and between peers prevents information from being manipulated for self-serving purposes.  Maintain open lines of communication in your organization.  Talk to your peers and managers about the direction of the organization and changes that are being made.  When you ask a question, suggest that the answer be distributed to everyone in the organization so that everyone hears the same thing at the same time.  Any resistance from leaders along the lines of “you don’t need to know that”, “don’t worry about it”, “it should be obvious” or “I’ll tell you, but just between you and me” is a strong warning sign that communication is not open and honest.

• Seek Solutions – It’s easy to identify problems but somewhat harder to identify solutions.  If all you do is identify problems, that’s called complaining and does nothing to address an issue.  Actively try to be a part of the solution.  Focus on issues that truly impact the well-being of the organization and its ability to achieve the mission and avoid personal gripes.  Then come up with a plan to resolve it.  It’s more difficult for chronically bad leaders to dismiss concerns that are shared by a broad base of the organization.

• Set the Example – Demonstrate the leadership that you expect from those who would lead you.  This means supporting and encouraging good leadership (even if it comes from someone you may not like) and discouraging bad leadership (even if it comes from people you do like).  This also means taking the high road and not following bad examples.  I don’t know if it’s a survival mechanism or if it’s simply because similar people gravitate towards each other, but there always seems to be a group of people who will do a bad thing simply because the person at the top does it or says it’s okay.  Always, always do the right thing, even when no one is looking and even if someone “gives you permission” to do otherwise.

• Stay Connected – Remember that you are all in the same boat trying to achieve the same goals.  This is easier to do when you stay connected with your peers.  You are less likely to write-off and more likely to stand up for people that you have a connection with.  If you don’t maintain a sense of team, it becomes easy to pit one group or department against another in a corporate version of divide and conquer.

• Step Forward – Want to keep chronically bad leaders from gaining a foothold in your organization?  Then step forward and do the job yourself.  If you care about your job, care about your team, and care about the organization and its mission, you might actually be good at leading.  It’s a challenging role, but there are a lot of resources available to help.  It’s a stressful role, but it can also be one of the most rewarding things you do.  Maybe think of it as a civic duty:  a sacrifice you make for the greater good of the organization.

There’s very little we can do to change a person’s ambitions, good or bad, and there will always be people who pursue position for their own ends.  We can, however, control the environment in which they operate.  Bad leaders thrive in environments with poor communication, inconsistent/capricious management, unclear goals, and where there is no sense of team.  Create an environment based on respect, collaboration, open communication, and a clear set of common goals, and bad leaders will not be tolerated.

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Workload Avalanche

At some point in their careers, all competent leaders will eventually reap the benefits of their good work:  more work. It often starts out as just a few additional tasks here and there.  Maybe you show up to work a little early and stay a little late.  You starting spending a little time each night at home planning for the next day.  Eventually you find yourself working half days during the weekend to try to catch up.  You’re officially buried.

Now, I’m not opposed to a little extra work and I feel there are some very good business reasons for it.  People tend to be more efficient with their time if they’re 110% occupied than if they’re only 90% occupied.  It sometimes makes more sense to push a little extra work onto existing staff rather than to increase headcount.  Sometimes it’s preferable to utilize a proven leader to take on a critical task than to give it to someone untested. In the end, it often comes down to the fact that there is just more demand for good leaders than there are good leaders to fill it.

But increasing someone’s workload is not a case of “if a little is good, then more must be better” and there are limits to how hard people can be pushed.  To be sure, everyone’s limits are different and there are some individuals who survive and even thrive at 60+ hours a week.  But push someone beyond their limits for an extended period of time, and you will rapidly swing from positive business impacts to negative ones.  Work quality goes down, burnout sets in, absenteeism increases, and eventually you’ll lose good employees.

There’s a good chance that you will eventually find yourself with more to do than can be done in a reasonable amount of time.  The difficulty is that once you’re on this path, it’s not all that easy to extricate yourself long enough to correct your course.  While everyone’s situation is different, there are some steps you can take to try to mitigate the situation.

1. Let Your Boss Know – While there is no guarantee that going to your boss for relief will result in a more reasonable work load, it is a certainty that nothing will improve if you keep silent about it.  Maybe you feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness and a signal to your boss that you can’t handle a tough assignment.  But when you finally get to the breaking point and you either botch an important task, lose a key client, have a meltdown at the office or just up and quit, I can guarantee that your boss will ask why you didn’t bring the issue to his attention earlier.

2. Shift Workload – You don’t have to do it all.  Identify those on your team that you trust and start shifting work over to them. When you shift work, do so in a way that minimizes your involvement and avoids micromanaging.  Give the person the necessary information, tools, authorities and the boundaries within which they have to operate, and they should be all right.

3. Find Quiet Time – When you’re being pulled in too many directions, your work day can turn into a series of 5-minute increments, each dedicated to a different project, direct report, task, client, fire, emergency or disaster.  While you end up getting a lot of small tasks done, you’re unable to focus on anything that requires substantial, uninterrupted time.  You need to carve out enough uninterrupted time during your week to get the “meatier” tasks done. Establish and enforce a regular time when you’re in the office but unavailable for interruptions (if you don’t enforce it, people will not take it seriously). Alternately, you can retreat to a location that doesn’t present you with continual distractions.  This could be your home office, the library, or just a quiet, out of the way place in your building.

4. Focus on Critical Tasks – When we have way too much to do, we can sometimes fall into the trap of taking care of the multitude of small, easier tasks and not getting to the more complicated, time-consuming ones.  Sometime we’re just trying to clear away enough of the small distractions so that we can focus on the big things.  The problem is that you start the day with a hundred small tasks, have another hundred walk through your door during the day and never truly get to the really important stuff.  Regardless of everything else that is going on, you absolutely need to make time for the more critical tasks:  stuff you absolutely can’t delegate, things that are holding others up from doing their work and things that, if not addressed, will grow into larger problems (client satisfaction, quality of work, employee morale, communicating bad news, etc.).

You’re eventually going to find yourself faced with an avalanche of work.  If you deal with it passively, you’ll be buried.  But if you actively try to manage the situation, you might just climb to the top of the pile.

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Leadership Resource – Doug Cartland

Leadership Resource – Doug Cartland

Greetings everyone!  It’s been quite awhile since I’ve posted anything.  I’m still very passionate about leadership and sharing my thoughts on the topic.  However, for the last several weeks I’ve been focused on a personal writing project and have not had time for both.  I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and have been focused on producing a 50,000-word novel by the end of November.  As a result, I’ve left this blog hanging.  I apologize for the poor communication and I should have posted an update weeks ago (as my lovely wife and editor has suggested).

While I’m off writing the great American novel (or what is more likely a moderately-funny-to-me-but-needs-a-lot-of-editing novel) I do have a leadership resource to share with you.  Doug Cartland is a leadership consultant based in Wisconsin.  I sat in on a presentation he gave at the 2011 Illinois Public Service institute and loved what he had to say.  Doug has a great insight not only into what people and leaders do, but why they do them.  He’s excellent at getting to the heart of issues and dealing directly with the source problem instead of dancing around the outside dealing only with the symptoms.  Better yet, Doug sends out a weekly free newsletter.  They’re quick reads and I think you’ll like what he has to say.  You can sign up for his newsletter by visiting his site at:  www.dougcartland.com.  Look along the left hand side towards the bottom of the main menu and you’ll find where you can sign up.

I wish everyone the best and though I’m not actively posting this month, I would love to hear from you regarding what’s happening in your leadership world.

All the best,

—Kevin

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Avoiding Leadership Pitfalls

Avoiding Leadership Pitfalls

Good leaders don’t just spontaneously appear from empty space.  They build their skills by trial and error, research, training, observing the good and bad from other leaders and through feedback.  To be sure, good leaders have some natural leadership abilities to build on, but most of their skill set is learned.  And the best leaders?  They never stop learning.  They are always asking “how can I do this better”.

Being a leader is neither an easy nor a simple task.  As the saying goes, if it were easy, anyone could do it.  Between the technical requirements of your job, team management, people management, managing your boss (aka “managing up”), balancing personal/work life, etc., being a leader is a complex job with a ton of potential pitfalls.  The following are some hints to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can occur early on.

  • Communicate the Big Picture – Many promotions are intended simply to fill a vacant position and the roles, responsibilities, expectations and authorities (RREA) for the new leader are the same as for the previous leader.  In this case, there really is no special communication beyond “Sally has been promoted to fill Jen’s position.  She knows she rocks; we know she rocks; everybody knows that she rocks”.  However, if there’s a unique reason for the promotion (e.g. to create a specific change), if it’s a newly created position, or if the promotion might otherwise cause some confusion (e.g. you’ve promoted a person from outside the department) then the reason for the promotion needs to be communicated.  “Marty has been brought over from the Operations Department to re-establish a sense of team and to improve productivity back to target levels.”  I’m not saying that you have to divulge all the specifics, but people are going to want to know what’s up, and trust me, if you don’t fill them in on your plan, they will make stuff up to fill in the gaps.  You want people focused on their jobs and supporting the new leader, not on feeding the rumor mill.  If you are the new leader and your boss hasn’t done this, then you need to do it yourself.
  • Keep Learning – There are a variety of reasons people are promoted to a new position.  It’s rarely because they are completely prepared for it.  Instead, people get promoted based on their previous good performance and the potential that they will continue to perform well in the new position.  Unless your new job is exactly the same as your last one, with the same people, the same resources, the same RREA, etc., you have got to be open to what you don’t know and work to fill in those gaps.  Some of the worst leadership train wrecks I’ve seen happen are when someone gets promoted to a new position and does nothing to gain the knowledge they need to be successful.  Relying on what you knew before your promotion will not get it done.  As I stated in my very first post, obtaining the position is only the first step.  You have a long race to run and you can’t just stand on the starting line congratulating yourself.
  • Be a Part of the Team – Most leaders hold a “middle” position; they have people that report to them, and they themselves report to a higher-level leader.  Sometimes as leaders we spend too much time looking up the organizational ladder and don’t pay enough attention to what’s around us (i.e. our current jobs and our direct reports).  If you spend too much time positioning yourself for the next promotion or spend your time ingratiating yourself to upper management, you will alienate your staff.  You will have sent them the message that it’s all about you instead of the team and they will not be motivated to follow you.  Good leaders understand that they have to be advocates for both sides.  They understand that the jobs would not exist without the organization, and that the organization would not be successful without talented, motivated staff filling the jobs.  Focus first on your team:  connect with them, make sure they understand what you’re trying to accomplish, make sure lines of communication are open, establish your expectations for them, be their advocates, and help them to succeed.  Once you’ve done your job and your team is working well, then you can see to your career.  Leaders who take the time to make sure that their current team is succeeding often find the next opportunity already waiting for them.
  • Know Your Limitations – Sometimes as new leaders we feel this pressure that we must know and do everything ourselves and that we are not allowed to make any mistakes.  The pressure can be internal (an unrealistic expectation for ourselves that we will be just as good in a new position as we were in the old one), it can be from below from your new direct reports, it can be lateral from similarly-situated peers, or it can be from above (perhaps a corporate culture where sink-or-swim is the norm and asking for help is considered a failure).  Understand and accept that you don’t know it all.  It doesn’t make you flawed or weak or a failure.  It makes you human.  Acknowledge to yourself and your staff what you don’t know and what your plan to fix it is.  A person who tells me where their weaknesses are and asks for my help in closing the gaps has my complete confidence.  A person who pretends that they know more than they do, who ignores their weaknesses, or who is just plain clueless about it does not inspire me to want to follow them.
  • Provide Guidance – There’s a military phrase called “fire and forget”.  It refers to a guided missile that, once launched, will accurately find its target without further human direction.  People do not work that way.  You cannot put someone into a leadership position, never think about them again and expect them to succeed.  As a higher-level leader, you need to monitor the leaders below you to make sure they are avoiding the pitfalls, growing in their skill sets, making corrections and succeeding.  There is too much at risk to allow them to fail because of insufficient guidance.  A poorly performing leader can damage morale, drive valuable employees to leave the organization and hurt productively.  And if things get too bad, you’re faced with having to replace that leader.  Not an easy or comfortable task to do, but at times necessary to avoid too much damage to the organization.

You’re gonna make mistakes.  You’re gonna fall into some pitfalls.  It won’t always be pretty and there will be some downright ugly times.  None of these things makes you either a bad person or a bad leader.  It just means that you’re human.  If you recognize your mistakes, own them, and then work to fix them, you’ll be just fine.

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