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Changes Ahead

If we want change to be lasting and more effective, we have got to get better at leading it.

A group of us were talking the other day about leading through change, and I couldn’t help but recall the many reorganizations I’ve watched (or been part of) during my years in the Five-sided Puzzle Palace. It might surprise you to know that not all my experiences with change in the home of the world’s greatest military were positive. Some were slightly less painful than others, but almost all were less than effectively executed – yes, I’m being charitable – because the changes weren’t well led.

In fact, we’ve led it so badly for so long, the very word “reorganization” has taken on an adversarial connotation. I’ve heard it called realignment, refocus, transformation, shake-up, even “simply changing who people work for,” but not once did it feel like we were doing anything but reorganizing.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Here’s some lessons that came from examples I’ve see of how NOT to lead during change. I know there are other kinds of change besides a reorganization, but the leadership lessons learned – or not learned – apply across the board.

Most importantly, don’t plan the change in secret. I know… you don’t want to distract anyone from their work by giving them something else to stand around and have fact-free conversations about. Well guess what – too late. You can’t stop the rumor mill with secrecy, and they’re already distracted all day long by wondering “How does this change affect me?” They’ve even given it a pet name, like The Great Disorganization of 2015, Musical Cubicles or Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic.

Instead, communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. To the whole organization. Start with the “why” you’re changing, follow with “what” you’re trying to get out of the change, and continue with soliciting “how” it might work better from the people whose day-to-day activities are affected by the new way of doing thing. You’re trying to get buy-in from the doers, not the affirmation by middle management that they’re okay with the new power distribution.

Next, pleeeeeese don’t change the organization to fix someone’s lack of performance. As in, don’t move a function away from a poor manager and give it to a top performer as a reward. If you do, you can bet you’ve just sent a horrible message to your workforce.

Instead, make sure the change is about the good of the organization. Individual needs do not override the collective goals of the organization (thank you, Mr. Spock). If a manager’s not getting the job done, get him some help (development, coaching, etc.) or replace him. It shows that accountability is more than a slogan on the break room bulletin board.

Finally (almost), don’t continue down a dead-end road just to save face. Not all newly-created organizations work the way they’re envisioned. Teams don’t gel, new leaders don’t lead, promised resources don’t materialize, etc., etc. In fact, a lot of changes don’t pan out the way we think they’re going to, so…

Fix what you messed up, and don’t be shy about telling people why you need to change again. Help your people build change resiliency, and keep everyone’s focus on organizational performance.

Okay, really last… don’t drag out the implementation date. It’s hard on people to have to dance between their current, but soon-to-be-former boss and their soon-to-be boss. Would you rather have your tooth pulled in one appointment or have pieces of it extracted over a series of months?

Change happens, and there are winners and losers in every re-shuffle, but the only people who are happy with change are those in charge of it and those who benefit by it. Still, led properly, growth and success are its by-products, and everyone can get behind that.

The alternative is not as good.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

I survived another meeting

An old friend sent me a picture the other day of this blue ribbon that says, “I survived another meeting that should have been an email.” He obviously remembers how I feel about meetings.

Turns out you can actually buy the ribbons here, and I know a lot of bosses who should pass them out.

You leaders have got to get a handle on the endless parade of time-wasting, morale-draining meetings you expect your people to sit through!

Routine, regularly scheduled meetings – the ones that are on your calendar until the end of time – are the worst! They typically involve endless droning around a table about activities that only one or two people in the room care about. When the boss at the head of the table tolerates such time wasting, the expectation is that everyone has to say something, and we’ve all experienced the guy who’s a little too fond of his own voice.

Several years ago, everyone in my directorate went to a weekly staff meeting like the one I described above. I used to tuck a couple of Sudokus in my notebook to make it look like I was taking notes (I know, not setting a good example). One week, I asked the director if I could skip the meeting if I was too busy. He said, “Sure.” I never went again.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

When I was talking the other day with a senior government leader about making meetings more productive, I got some pushback on my value judgement. He said, “It’s the only time we all get together. How else will everyone find out what the others are working on?” I remember one time a Deputy Under Secretary actually saying, “The daily meeting’s not for you; it’s for me to find out what everyone’s doing.”

Trust me, there are far better ways to connect the people who need information with the people who have information. If you’re the boss and doubt what I’m saying, give this to your people and ask for their thoughts.

Productive meetings don’t happen by accident. If you want to see a dramatic improvement in Return On Time Spent In Meetings (ROTSIM – a new metric?), try these proven steps:

Put someone (preferably someone who values efficient use of time) in charge of the agenda. Meetings without agendas usually end up being free-for-alls. If you absolutely have to have a routine meeting to update the boss, make it clear in advance that no one brings more than two or three of their most critical issues that a majority of people around the table really need to know about. Any issues that only the boss and the person speaking care about should be handled one-on-one or in an email.

Get rid of as many routine meetings as you can. I was once part of an organization (for a very short period of time) who actually tracked the number of meetings attended as a performance metric. Try only having meetings when there is something to decide. Have clear objectives, not open-ended ones like “Discuss employee engagement.” Send pre-work to the attendees so they can come to the table as an informed participants, not as sponges.

No marathon meetings! People lose focus and creativity when you hold them hostage for more than an hour or two, especially after lunch. If need be, break the agenda in half and have two shorter meetings appropriately spaced.

Finally, make sure someone’s keeping track of decisions and deferred issues. Make it a written record and include who is responsible for each along with a deadline. It can be part of the pre-work if you need a subsequent session.

What about the time you spend around the conference room table? Want to reduce it and make it more productive?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

Sorry Key Shows Online Apology Or Regret   

      Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter-accusations (not!)

I didn’t see much press uproar last month after Southwest Airlines grounded nearly a quarter of their fleet because they hadn’t conducted required inspections on a backup system, resulting in over a hundred cancelled flights.

I wondered why it didn’t reach the media screech most companies get for public safety compromises (think GM’s ignition and Nissan’s break switch lawsuits). Could it be because they caught it themselves, admitted fault to the appropriate oversight, presented a plan to fix it and then did?

I won’t get started on my disdain for mainstream media, but would it be too absurd for me to believe Southwest actually handled this correctly, and so there wasn’t much chum in the water to feed the media?

Let’s assume that’s the case. Is that how your organization admit mistakes? Or does it?

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Early in my Air Force career, I was a squadron Safety Officer (an additional duty, which shows the priority leadership put on it). It was one of those thankless jobs, but one that required unquestioned integrity to be effective.

During my tenure, a boat we were carrying on our airplane vented fuel into the cargo compartment right after takeoff, which required an emergency return to the airfield. No doubt our fault, since we believed (but didn’t confirm) that the boat’s tanks were empty. I properly reported the incident to higher headquarters – and was thoroughly wire-brushed by the commander for admitting our mistake.

But we fixed our processes as a result, and it didn’t happen again.

It can be hard to admit mistakes, especially as a leader. But nothing cements the trust a leader has with followers like saying, “I made a mistake; here’s what I’m going to do to make it right.”

The alternative is the equivocation and “conflation of events” that we keep hearing about in the media, usually resulting in a scab that keeps getting picked. Or, worse yet, we don’t hear about the cover-up until it threatens the very success of the company.

It’s really not that complicated to admit a mistake, but there seems to be a palpable resistance in many organizations to do it. After some very unscientific research, I turned up nearly a zillion versions of How to Make the Perfect Apology. I’ve summarized them for you:

1. Act quickly.
2. Don’t cover it up.
3. Own the mistake.
4. Take the necessary steps to make it right.

It’s that simple, and my hat’s off to Southwest for getting it right this time.

What about your organization? Do you have a culture that encourages people to admit mistakes, or hide them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

photo

Probably too many attempts have been made to define leadership.

Everyone seems to have their own favorite definition. More often than not, it comes down to “I know it when I see it.”

So instead of struggling to identify good leadership behaviors, try looking at the leaders you’ve known through a different lens. Ask yourself, “What did their leadership feel like?”

We follow leaders because they make us want to, not because we have to.

It’s an emotional decision to choose to do more than we have to. Good leaders get our discretionary effort because we appreciate how they make us feel – about them, about ourselves and about the organization.

Over the course of my Defense Department career, I had the privilege of working for and with a number of great leaders…and some not so great ones. There were as many different styles as there were leaders. I tried to emulate the good ones; the bad ones…well, let’s just say not everyone served as a good example.

I’ve got the stick for a minute

My favorite leaders aren’t necessarily charismatic or outgoing; they’re not all what you would call mighty warriors; some can’t (and never could) hold their own at the club on Friday nights.

But they all have one thing in common: they have a certain presence about them – leadership presence – that makes me like being around them.

Here are my three favorite traits that I think contribute the most to their leadership presence:

They have integrity. They don’t just do the right things when no one’s watching. They also have integrity you can feel, knowing in your heart that they’re going to do what they say – or own up to it when they can’t. No false promises and no excuses. Because of that, I trust them.

They’re genuine. They’re comfortable with who they are, and there’s no pretense in their behavior. Their compassion is real. That doesn’t mean they’re cuddly – far from it – but I’m certain of what they stand for and what they care about. They don’t have a need to be seen as more than they really are, and they don’t hide behind a veneer.

They’re present. They make me feel like what we’re discussing is important to them. They don’t act distracted by what else they could be doing, and they’re not casting glances at their computer screen or caller ID. It’s very calming, even if it is only for the few minutes I’m with them.

How do you make your followers feel? Look for the common traits in your favorite leaders and decide where you could improve your leadership presence.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

T-birds

 

As a leader in your organization, who’s got your back? Are the people you work with watching out for you, or do you find yourself covering your six to keep from being stabbed in the back?

I’m a huge supporter of the new “Got Your Six” campaign to unite nonprofit, Hollywood, and government partners to support our veterans. The commercials touch my heart when they explain how “got your six” means we’ve got our veterans’ backs as they transition from military service to civilian life.

They also remind me of lessons I learned in pilot training about how to keep enemy pilots from maneuvering to my ultimate position of vulnerability: my six o’clock position – the blind spot directly behind me where I wouldn’t recognize I was about to be killed. Translated into corporate language: where someone is about to make us look stupid or incompetent without us realizing it.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

“Covering your six” is what pilots have wingmen for. Wingmen fly behind and above (or below) their lead to make sure no one sneaks up on them. Pretty easy analogy to apply to the corporate world, but who’s really going to watch your back in the dog-eat-dog of office politics?

Your followers, that’s who. The ones who trust you and know you have their backs as well.

When a leader is intentional about creating an environment of trust and cooperation in the office, coworkers watch out for each because they want the organization to succeed. It’s much more difficult to blindside an entire group of people watching out for each other than it is an individual outside the circle of trust.

You build that environment of trust by having non-negotiable integrity and demonstrating you both care more about your employees than you do yourself (compassion), and you can and will use their efforts for the good of the organization (competence).

You instill that trust only if your actions are consistent with your words. If you’re one who talks about others behind their backs, you can assume you’re also being talked about. If there is even a hint that you might sacrifice one of your people for your benefit, you’re headed for a Julius Caesar ending.

Now, I’m not Pollyannaish, and I’ve certainly worked in places where the motto was something like “it’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” Competition can be fierce, and insecure or power-hungry people backstab from a variety of motivations.

But you can’t focus on helping your employees achieve great things if you’re always sitting in the corner with your back to the wall. You’ve got to be out there doing your best for them, trusting them the way they trust you. That’s the leader’s role, and while it’s vulnerable, it doesn’t have to be unsafe.

So who’s got your six? It’s up to you.

You have the stick.

Goals On Dartboard Shows Aspired Objectives

   – it’s not the same as setting goals.

I hate goal setting. The whole business of it.

That’s why I was surprised by a conversation I had with my daughter a couple of weeks ago. Home from her fall semester, she was describing her goals to me – her grad school goals, financial goals, career goals, life goals – and I was amazed. When I asked how she learned about goal setting, she unexpectedly answered, “from you, of course.” I didn’t know I’d passed goal setting to another generation, because (if I hadn’t mentioned it) I hate goal setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate setting goals; it’s the only way I know I’m on track to where I want to go. But there’s so much of the institutional process of individual goal setting that is all about process and almost nothing about the accomplishment of what really matters.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Leaders who have vision and can translate it into an executable plan that followers buy into can be the Holy Grail to an organization. On the down side, results can easily be torpedoed by the intermediate level managers who don’t know how to get the people who actually DO work to set performance and developmental goals that support that vision and plan.

I would propose that few leaders have a good grasp on the goals his/her workforce sets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t held accountable for their workforce’s results. It’s past time to get involved.

As 2015 begins, we’re all being encouraged (or required) to set goals for the coming year. We all know what SMART goals are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound. I prefer clear, concise, actionable, and tied to organizational performance, but that would require a new acronym (C-CAT would only appeal to a very narrow audience).

The problem is that a step in any direction looks like progress to someone who doesn’t know where they’re going. Most organizations are horrible at getting individuals to understand how what they do contributes to organizational success. That breeds mediocrity at best, and sincerely misdirected efforts at worst.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: For the workforce to actually tie their performance to what leaders expect their organizations to do this year, serious effort is required at every level. Leaders and managers have to get more involved in communicating both how their people can contribute to organizational goals and how they can develop into more productive contributors.

STOP asking them to write nebulous performance goals (like “superior customer support measured by no negative customer comments”) and developmental goals (like “take an online course on how to get along with others”). They can easily meet those goals with no actual benefit to your organizational goals whatsoever.

Jack Welch said that before you’re a leader, success is all about growing yourself; when you become a leader, success is all about growing others. For those of you who think you’re leading, it’s about time you get more interested in helping others set meaningful goals than in setting your own.

It’s up to you.

You have the stick.

 2014-12-08 15.15.04    

      –But what is it?

 I looked up from my desk the other day and noticed (again) a retirement present from a good friend and co-worker that says, “It is what it is.” Too often, I hear that phrase uttered in a tone of voice that conveys resignation to an unpleasant situation or acceptance of defeat. It doesn’t have to be.

As leaders, a key to success is in understanding the last part of the sentence:  “…what it is.”  It might be something we have control over, something we can only influence, or something that affects us and our people but is out of our hands.  How quickly we ascertain which of the three It is, and how we communicate that to those who work for and with us often determines whether we (the royal we) are going to rise above the challenge.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

In a past life, I commanded an organization responsible for deploying personnel to all parts of Europe and Africa. We were too short staffed in certain specialties to do what were we being asked to do, and getting additional manpower was out of our control. What was in our control was how we used the personnel we had. Instead of being resigned to playing the victim to asymmetric workload distribution between specialties, we developed an aggressive cross-training program that enabled the willing but underemployed to team with those who were in danger of burning out. As a result, we built a greater number of very capable, cross-functional teams that were scalable and incredibly efficient to deploy and employ, and we significantly improved morale in the process.

This speaks to three core truths of leadership: leaders create “we” organizations; leaders don’t play the victim; and, leaders help others manage change.

As the chief executive, my job was to instill a sense of shared purpose, creating a “we” organization that excelled at overcoming adversity and delivering client success. Those given additional training knew they’d be asked to work harder but were willing to give their discretionary effort to reduce the burden on their co-workers. If you know your organization has spare band-width in some areas, maybe you can tap into it through a renewed sense of shared purpose.

When leaders fail, they can’t play the victim. I tried so many times to get additional personnel, they called me Kevin de la Mancha. As frustrating as it was, we didn’t sit around and blame others for not being able to accomplish the mission; we got off our morass and found an alternative that gave us control back. If you’re not encouraging your people to find innovative ways to overcome It, they may not think you have what it takes to lead them to greater successes, and they’ll be less likely to follow.

Leaders have to model change resiliency; if you don’t have it at the top, you won’t find it at the bottom. Understanding and anticipating resistance to changing the status quo hierarchical way of tasking made it easier for me to communicate the positive effects we could generate (both up and down the chain of command) and involve those most affected in the implementation plan. When those affected demonstrated their buy-in, it silenced the nay-sayers and motivated others to want to do more work for the good of the team.

How are you dealing with It?  Are you resigned to suffer its impact on your organization, or are you aggressively developing alternative strategies to deliver success by giving your people the tools and opportunities they need to exceed expectations?

As the leader, overcoming It depends on you…

You have the stick.

putting_out_fire_on_paper_plane

     —now’s not a good time to overreact!

Leaders must be intentional about creating a culture where employees aren’t afraid to identify situations that need correcting and where they feel empowered to suggest improvements.  That kind of climate doesn’t develop by accident, especially in an operating environment that can be a little (or a lot) chaotic from time to time.

An inexperienced pilot, unable to diagnose a complex engine malfunction, offered this solution to the problem:  I’ll let it run until it’s on fire, because I know what to do for a fire.”

I’ve worked for bosses like that.

Don’t get me wrong…the ability to coolly manage a crisis is a valuable skill, and it feels great to be recognized for saving the day. But, if your organization’s reward system is biased towards those who are best at putting out fires, you’ll end up with a bunch of corporate arsonists working for you–people who are perfectly willing to watch small problems grow into the crisis du jour while they make sure their super-hero cape is ready for wear.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Let’s review some of what we already know about solving problems:

People tend to view problems either as opportunities to improve, or as negative experiences to be avoided at all cost. Which way your folks view them depends on you. Do they trust that you’ll stay calm in the face of calamity, or do they dread your overreaction to simple inconveniences? Don’t tempt them to ignore or hide issues because it’s too painful to tell you. Bad news doesn’t disappear just because you stop receiving it.

The best solutions usually come from a team that’s given the resources (like time) and tools (like a simple problem-solving methodology) to be innovative in creating ways to improve performance and results. If you’ve made them comfortable with the tools, they can apply them equally well during critical times and during less hectic times for making continuous process improvements. Battlefield reactions are honed through peacetime training, and solutions developed collaboratively in a practiced manner go beyond mitigating the situation at hand to identify and address the root cause(s).

And, make sure you’re not undermining teamwork by favoring or rewarding only the “go to” people; they might be closer to the problem than they are to the solution. If you’re leading a team that always seems to be in crisis management mode, chances are good someone knew about a situation that needed to be fixed before it became a real problem.

So, what kind of problem-solving culture have you created in your organization? Are you the kind of leader that waits until a problem becomes a crisis, or are you able to thoughtfully choose between the potential solutions your high-performing team brought you for consideration?

It’s up to you, leaders…

You have the stick.

 

 

–if you don’t have it at the top, don’t expect it at the bottom

Regardless of what a company says, how a company deals with ethics and integrity issues directly reflects actual senior management values and loudly communicates those values to its employees.

It was announced this month that Wisconsin-based manufacturer Johnson Controls, Inc.’s board of directors cleared its CEO of unethical behavior (Johnson Controls Dismisses Management-Consultant Firm) after it was revealed he was having an affair with one of his executive management team’s consultants.  The board determined that there was no conflict of interest but terminated the long-time consultant’s contract, anyway.

Really?

–And you’re holding the murder weapon.

Leaders need to engage periodically in some serious introspection and decide whether or not their decision-making style or the culture they’ve created is mortally wounding organizational performance.

I learned that lesson as a by-product of a traumatic experience over three decades ago.  Early in my flying career, in close proximity to another airplane also traveling at 400+ mph, I heard a magical phrase from my instructor that’s stuck with me ever since:  indecision kills.

First, though, he said, “I have the stick.”

That meant he was going be in control of the airplane for a few minutes while giving me instruction and advice, and in this case, saving my life.  It was clear to him (but not to me) that if I didn’t hurry and decide which course correction to make, my indecision would result in a catastrophic mid-air collision.

While not normally fatal in the corporate world, leadership and management indecision still kills.  Among other things, it kills employee morale and motivation, productivity and project momentum, and causes our customers to lose confidence that we can be responsive to their needs.

Indecisiveness is caused by a number of factors, primarily fear of failure.  Much has been written about decision-making processes and steps that those who have trouble being decisive can take.  But I’ve yet to find a magic pill that managers can take that makes them less hesitant to make a “good enough” decision in an environment where imperfect decisions are frowned upon.

I have the stick for a minute.

Several years ago, our director called his senior managers together and boldly announced, “We take too long to make decisions.  We’re going to start making decisions faster so we can make more decisions, and if we make a bad decision, at least we’ll have time to make a better one.”  Heresy in a bureaucratic institution with an entrenched, hierarchical decision making process.  But he was a leader, and we did start making better decisions without getting bogged down in staff morass.

I’m not suggesting all decisions need to be made quickly and neither was he.  What I am suggesting is that leaders need to continually evaluate the effect their decision-making style is having on the organization, and the decision-making culture they’ve created for their managers.  When leaders create an environment where employees feel empowered and decision-making has been appropriately delegated, managers are more willing to make timely, good decisions without waiting for perfect information.

And that reduces the mortality rate for employee morale, keeps promising projects from getting bogged down, and increases customer responsiveness.

Leadership is an activity, not a position.  That activity includes making sure you foster an environment where the decision-making process doesn’t paralyze the organization and mistakes aren’t always professionally fatal.

Back to you, leaders…

You have the stick.