In most cases, the warning signs that you are losing your rock star status at work are the same whether you are an up-and-coming high performer or a senior leader who has been “on top of the charts” for decades.
But there are some warning signs for the senior leader that are slightly different. A good friend of mine, Randy Hain, Managing Partner of Bell Oaks Executive Search and I came up with following list:
You are no longer being included in strategy decisions – Have you noticed that you have much more time on your hands? That you are no longer “required” to be present at some of the strategy meetings that you once dreaded? Be careful. While you think this means they value your time, this may really mean that they no longer value your opinion.
Head hunters aren’t calling – The “real” rock stars are known inside and outside of their industry and they are wooed regularly. Even in this economy, there are plenty of jobs available to the rock star. So, when was the last time your phone rang?
You are not included in informal social gatherings – Do members of the senior leadership team invite you over to their homes? Do you and your spouse go out with other team members and their spouses? Do your peers make an effort to get to know you? If not, you need to ask yourself “why not?”
No one listens anymore – I recently attended a company-wide social event. The senior leader stood up to speak to kick off festivities and set the tone for the evening. The members of the organization looked up for a moment, saw who was speaking and then continued their conversations with each other. Are you getting ignored when you speak?
To sum these up, if you are a senior leader and you are beginning to notice that you are frequently left alone at work, it is not a sign of others “respecting your time.” It is more likely a sign that your opinion is no longer valued. You are at risk of becoming no longer relevant. You need to get your fans back… and fast.
This month’s dysfunction deals with an all too common problem: not being told where you stand at work often resulting in being blind-sided with bad news. Do you know where you stand at work today? Are you seen as a rock star? A loose cannon? A future leader? No longer relevant to the organization? Too often, our position changes and we aren’t even aware of it. For many of us, there was a time when we were rock stars. We had a loyal fan base and sold out venues. But, as it happens with most rock stars, over time people stop coming to our shows until one day, to our surprise, our fans are gone. The worst part – no one bothered to tell us along the way.
This month, we will tackle this dysfunction: not being told where you stand at work often resulting in being blind-sided with bad news. Throughout the month we’ll cover, amongst other things:
What are the warning signs that I’m losing my fans?
What are the land mines I need to avoid?
What can I do proactively to get a read on where I stand today?
How can I “sell more tickets” and keep myself relevant?
Every Monday, I’ll kick off our conversation for the week by addressing one of these big questions. Throughout the week I’ll share stories, examples and other opinions as we dig in. By the end of the month, if we haven’t cured this dysfunction, we’ll do a darn good job treating it!
So, write to me with your stories, examples or opinions on the subject. I promise to protect the innocent (and guilty!).
If you looked at the title of this post for more than .5 seconds, than you might be thinking to yourself “wait a minute. I thought you said at the beginning of this month that you hated the ‘no goal’ philosophy.” If that thought entered your head, you would be correct. I absolutely despise the ‘no goal’ philosophy. I despise it like I despise waiting in long airport security lines with my shoes in one hand and holding up my pants with the other… like I despise sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway in the middle of summer dripping and it’s only 7:45am… like I despise abusive bosses, nasty coworkers and poor behaving relatives. So what am I talking about with this post? I’m talking about setting “no” goals, not “no goals.” In other words, what are you going to stop doing this year and / or say “no” to in order to achieve what you have set out to achieve?
Managing the noise
One of the most common themes I’ve heard over the last several years is the increase in all of the “noise” that surrounds us every day. From new initiatives and evolving strategies to increased workloads, the noise for all of us is intense. Simply put, if you are going to achieve the new goals you added to your plate, you have no choice but to remove something else (unless, of course, you have plenty of free time, but my guess is that your plate overfloweth).
What to say “No” to
As you are thinking about what you should say “no” to, consider the following thought-starter categories. They have helped me (and many of my clients) a time or two.
Not Part of Your Role / Responsibilities– There is nothing easier than to say “yes” when asked to do something. However, if you took an inventory of what’s on your plate, do you have things you are doing that are not part of your role or responsibilities? If so, consider removing some or all from your plate. For example, maybe you are doing one of your direct report’s jobs for him or her. Or perhaps you’ve gotten sucked into to doing your boss’ job for him / her. Either way, it’s all about knowing what is your stuff and what isn’t.
Less Than Your Hourly Rate – A slight offshoot of the “role / responsibilities” category, this category is about asking yourself the following question every time something is tossed your way “Given I make X per hour, should I be the one doing this?” My favorite example comes from a CEO and business owner several years ago. As he described to me all he did in a given week, my ears perked up when he described his Friday routine. Turns out he was driving to Costco, buying candy bars and stocking the vending machine. That is one expensive vending machine attendant that company has employed, let me tell ya.
Inconsistent with Your Brand – Perhaps you could argue that the thing(s) you are doing are within your job and you are adequately paid to be doing them, but are they consistent with the brand you are trying to promote? In other words, are you doing things that may point you down the wrong direction of your career because you are being labeled as the person that does that? PowerPoint is my version of this evil trap. I am pretty good at PowerPoint (I was once called a “PowerPoint princess” but that is another story). And while it might be necessary, I have found that when I have worked on teams, I would quickly become the PowerPoint “guy.” Accurate, but not how I wanted to be known. I had to reposition myself and so I would either not take on the role of driving PowerPoint or I would offer to do it as the lead presenter. How ‘bout you? Are you doing something that is branding you inaccurately?
Things Slowly Killing You – Are you doing things that are killing you? Dramatic I know, but are you? Are you trying to squeeze in extra work in a day by sacrificing your exercise or your sleep (less than 7 hours consistently is dangerous)? Are you eating poorly in an effort to save more time? Are you smoking or drinking daily in an effort to manage stress or simply to relax? You’re not gonna get anywhere dead… unless of course, you become a workplace zombie.
Setting Your “No” Goal(s)
Hopefully you are feeling sufficiently uncomfortable (I’m all about uncomfortable) and ready to set your “no” goal(s). Remember, you don’t need to say “no” to everything I laid out above. Just pick one. Once you’ve got it, the challenge then is getting enough courage to do it. One final thought, great leaders set “no” goals. They are clear on what isn’t a good use of their time and they either delegate the activity, outsource the activity (as a geeky consultant friend of mine once told me… he “outsources” his lawn), or they flat out say “no” (for help saying “no”, here you go).
Get your “no” goals in hand and get started clearing your plate. You’re gonna need the space.
As Willy Wonka so eloquently put it, there is “so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.” What a poet…
Setting the right work-related goals is critical for keeping you moving forward and avoiding getting “stuck” in the wrong role, company or occupation. The challenge is that one size does not fit all. There are a myriad of combinations that may work for you. To that end, I’m gonna tell you what works (and has worked) for me and for others. Consider this your menu to sample from as you move into the next year. You’ll see, I’ve definitely got my “specials of the day.”
As it relates to work and career goals, most of us fall short when it comes to possessing a long-term vision of where we see ourselves professionally. We get caught up in the trees and lose sight of the forest. As a result, we end up wandering in the workplace woods for a very long-time.If we aren’t careful, we become pricing specialists for the tire industry. Consider the following exercise to overcome the forest dilemma:
Step 1: Gaze into my crystal ball and look out 5 years into the future (or 10 years if you are ambitious)
Step 2: My crystal ball only shows perfect. Describe what perfect looks like for you. What would your perfect life look like? Consider things like: where you would live, what your job would be, what your family situation would look like, etc…
Step 3:Forgive yourself. Inevitably, there will be questions you don’t have answers to. Don’t beat yourself up. Work with what you know. If you know you want to live next to the ocean but you don’t’ know what your job would be, no sweat. That little piece of information is still extremely valuable… particularly if you currently live in Omaha.
Step 4: Given where you see yourself down the road (5 or 10 years), track back to this year and ask yourself: what do I need to get done this year to set myself up well to move toward my long-term vision?
You’ve stuck your head above the tree line and you’ve gazed at the big picture. Now consider the trees standing in your way. In other words, once you’ve got your longer-term goal and a related goal for this year, you can more adequately take on a more specific work-related goal.
For a helpful framing of your work-related goal(s)for this upcoming year, consider the following 3 big categories. In Harvey Coleman’s book Empowering Yourself, The Organizational Game Revealed, he offers a simple yet extremely helpful acronym: P. (performance), I. (image), E. (exposure). Consider these as helpful “tree” categories to get you moving down the path you’ve set.
Performance – Goals that have to do with how you do your job. This can include doing your job better, learning new skills or even removing tasks you are doing from your job that either you don’t do well or shouldn’t be doing at all (delegation). Naturally, while important, Coleman argues this category only makes up about 10% of one’s long-term success.
Image– How others perceive you. Your brand. If you’ve had the fortune of getting 360 feedback this year, you might have noticed components in your feedback which are more about other’s perception of you than your performance (Ex: You always arrive late to meetings, people can always tell when you don’t like what they are saying by your eye-rolling, you cut others off, you don’t dress professionally, etc…). A critical category to be sure. Coleman weighs this category as contributing a meaty 30% to your long-term success.
Exposure – How much visibility you are getting with and from others. Do others talk about you in meetings when you aren’t there? Are you networking with the right people? Do the right people “know” you? Upon first glance, this category seems like non-essential. Oh contraire. Coleman argues exposure makes up a whopping 60% of your long-term success. Expose away… appropriately of course.
All that stands between you and that sandy white beach is you. Get moving. As a mentor of mine always says, “keep it simple.” Narrow your work-related goals down to one or two. No more. If you can do that and stay true to your compass, you’ll be working under an umbrella in no time.
Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day? Maybe your stomach was always in knots. Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night. Or maybe your body physically hurt. You just hurt, every day. Simply put, you didn’t feel good. Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy. Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?
You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?” The bottom line is “yes” they are. But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.” Some workplaces are more contagious than others. Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?). The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.
Curious? I hope so. I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end. Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.
At the end of the day, work should not have to suck. Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!
Parenting is hard. And hard things teach lessons. Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read. But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me. Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:
I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)
Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:
1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.
This is not a new concept. Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1. But what does this really mean? To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week. But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults. It also means being tough on behaviors. It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep. From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on. Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite. A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection. Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time. In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person. No thank you.
2. Clarity is king.
Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room? In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?” The story ends the same way every time. The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off. Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room. Clearly there was a miscommunication. In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well. If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get. At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.” The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission. At my house, it would look like this:
Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now. The bus comes in 10 minutes. If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school. That will cost you $5 for her services. Do you want to pay mom $5?”
Aaron: “No sir.”
Me: “Good. Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”
And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said. In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients. After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job. It’s all about clarity.
3. It is not a democracy.
In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.” My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks. “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply. And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family. In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish. Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her. In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household. Our children are not allowed to edit us. Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit. Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit. Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do. I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy. The goal is not happiness. The goal is growth.
4. Failure is a great teacher.
I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team. One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest. It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for. I only have one thing I wish he would change. I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.” In my life, failure has been a great teacher. It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance. And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.
As a mentor of mine once said to me:
“All day long we work with adults. But don’t be mistaken. They aren’t really adults. They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”
If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.
Contrary to popular belief, LOVE is not a four-letter word in the workplace (I’m sure many of my HR friends are cringing right now, furiously composing a rebuttal). And yet, it is a rare workplace in which I encounter a leader comfortable enough to embrace the power of love (shout out to Huey Lewis) in how he or she leads. Emotional distance is safer. As one leader recently shared with me, “I keep a safe distance with all of my direct reports because I may one day have to let them go. It is much easier to have those conversations if I don’t know anything about them personally or don’t have a deeper connection with them.” No doubt, arms-length leadership is the safe play, the legal play. But arms-length leadership is neither inspiring nor compelling leadership.
For the purposes of this post, consider the notion that “leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.” Love is a powerful form of positive energy, and simply put, leadership is all about pumping energy into a system in order to drive alignment and progress. Whether we are talking about inspiration or instilling urgency, leadership is all about energy.
“leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.”
Consider the following leadership loves that I would argue great leaders possess:
Love the mission and purpose of the organization. They feel an emotional connection to the “why” of the organization and are comfortable sharing that passion with others.
Love the customers they serve. They care about their customers enough to be curious about their customers’ needs and how the organization might be able to make their lives better.
Love their employees. They feel a deep commitment and care for the people they lead.
Love their jobs. They consider themselves blessed to have the privilege to touch so many lives and lead others to something better. Their role brings them joy and a personal sense of purpose.
Leaders that have these four leadership loves inspire others. They have the ability to lead others through difficult change. Followers and customers alike give them the benefit of the doubt in times of uncertainty.
Leading with love is a long-term strategy. It is rewarded with loyalty and commitment from others. Arms-length leadership is a short-term strategy and is rewarded with temporary commitments until something better comes along (something better always does seem to come along).
So what are you waiting for? Time to stop playing the field and time to get serious. Take a chance and lead with your heart.
I’m a culture geek. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m a pocket-protector-wearing culture nerd. While others think about stuff like who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the latest round of celebrity gossip, I think about culture. Disney parks, Ritz Carlton hotels, Google, SouthWest Airlines, NetFlix, Chick-fil-A, etc… if the company is associated with culture, I read up on them, spend my money with them and generally try to figure out what makes them tick. And while I’m fascinated by the systems, processes and policies that these companies put in place to support their culture, don’t be mistaken. I’ve come to realize that it is not the systems or policies that make culture. It’s the leadership. Culture begins and ends with leadership.
It is in this way that the topic of leadership and culture can extend beyond the board room table to the kitchen table. Great leaders lead and set a clear culture. I’ve found the same phenomenon to be true at home. The most effective parents have a clear culture set inside the four walls of their home that contributes to the growth and development of their children and the family.
What is Culture?
You may be thinking, “Brandon, what do you mean by culture?” Simply put, culture is what happens when you aren’t around. It defines how stuff gets done. In the business world we often link culture to execution. If your team is getting stuff done while you are away at the conference, you’ve got an effective culture.
“Culture is what happens when you aren’t around.”
At home, we can make the same statement. Are members of your “organization” doing what they are supposed to do when you aren’t around?
Whether we are talking about your team at work or your ankle-biters at home, the question for you is the same: “what culture do you want and how are you going to set it?”
How Leaders Set a Strong Culture at Work and at Home
To answer that question, we can turn our attention to leaders of companies with strong cultures. Over the years, I’ve noticed some common behaviors amongst almost all of these leaders. And along the way, I’ve also helped myself to their approaches and applied them at home with some interesting outcomes. Consider the following leadership traits related to leading strong cultures:
They see their roles as “protectors of the culture.” Listen to any leader of an organization with a strong culture and they’ll tell you that their role is not to run the business. Rather, they see their role as the “protector of the culture.” Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A is a perfect example. Protecting a culture is a full-time job and full time role whether we are at work or at home. It means making decisions based on the values one is trying to reinforce. Several years ago, my 10 year old was pushing us to let him quit karate. He hated sparring class because it was hard. My wife and I talked together about the importance of teaching him “resilience” and how important it was for us to protect the values of resilience and courage in our household. We wouldn’t let him quit. He’s scheduled to get his black belt next year.
They make their values clear and simple. The best cultures have simple, sticky and memorable sets of values that can be easily recited inside the organization. At home it should be no different. One of my personal favorites that all of my children in my home can recite in their sleep is the following values statement: “Decision-makers pay.” When a child is complaining about the fantastic gourmet dinner that mom cooked, I announce to the table that this particular child is showing leadership and would like to decide what we will be having for dinner. And as a result, this member of the family will also be buying dinner for the family. After a brief pause to contemplate my statement, the child then makes the following statement to the table, “mom, dinner looks and smells wonderful. Thank you for making it.” Culture, baby.
They talk about the culture every day. We get this. Jack Welch famously commented that as a leader of a large organization, you’ll find yourself talking about values and culture on a daily basis until you are blue in the face. This is where I’m going to ruffle some feathers, folks. Ready? You can’t outsource this. As parents and leaders, it requires a regular presence. If you are not home more nights than not, you aren’t talking about culture. You aren’t leading culture. Just like if you were the CEO of a company, you’d never consider hiring a part-time worker to be the culture advocate at your company. Hiring help at home and expecting them to carry the culture flag is unrealistic and unfair.
They punish swiftly and severely when culture is violated. I was talking to a senior HR leader just last week at a Best Places To Work organization and he shared with me this great story. After searching for some time, he and the CEO hired an external candidate to serve as the President of a division. After just three weeks on the job, they were hearing more and more complaints from the President’s team until eventually the whole team went to leadership and told repeated stories of arrogance, disrespect and condescending behavior. Within 3 hours the President was pulled into HR and “invited to leave.” Leaders of strong cultures punish violators swiftly and severely. I got the pleasure of having one of these conversations with my 13 year old daughter this morning. It was not pretty. Dad probably came in a little too “hot.” Hopefully she got the message, but time will tell. Being a parent is hard.
They win with their culture. Culture is one of the few competitive advantages of any company that simply can’t be copied. It is so specific to the people and, more importantly, the leadership that it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for companies that do it well. Think Disney parks. They dominate the amusement park industry like no other. In 2009 while the industry reported significant revenue losses as a result of the recession, Disney marched forward with nearly 5% topline growth and has continued the march forward since. We get what “winning” means at work but what does winning mean at home? Ultimately, winning as parents is the development of fully formed adults that make positive contributions to society. But consider this short-term definition of a winning culture at home that I find to be particularly helpful. It goes back to the statement that culture is what happens when you aren’t around. My kids may behave poorly at home (not an uncommon experience for any parent, I would imagine) but frankly, it matters less to me than when we aren’t around. When my children are at school, at a friend’s house or staying with the grandparents, they represent us. They are Smith-Culture Ambassadors. If I get glowing reports from teachers, parents, grandparents, strangers and even wait staff at restaurants, I know I’m doing my job. However, a bad report is a failing grade for leadership and for the culture. An overhaul is in order.
So there you have it. One culture geek’s effort at taking best practices in the working world and bringing them home. And if you doubt my geekiness, enjoy the following picture. And yes, we wore those the whole day.
Who would have thought being a parent would be so itchy?
Sometimes dysfunction comes in the form of a Trojan horse. It doesn’t come straight at you like an abusive boss or nasty coworker. It sneaks in through the backdoor and once in, it rears its ugly head. Remember the story of the infamous Trojan horse (and no, I’m not talking about an e-mail virus)? As the story goes, after nearly 10 years of trying to break the Trojans and get into the city of Troy, the Greeks came up empty (personally, I can’t imagine failing for 10 straight years. I can’t decide if that’s crazy or persistent.). In a last-ditch effort, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war.
Needy direct reports are Trojan horses. They are friendly, ask our opinions, crave our feedback, and hang on our every word. We welcome them with open arms. The problem is that once they are inside our walls, all hell breaks loose.
How do you know you have a needy direct report?
Are you currently under siege by a needy direct report? Consider the following signs of truly needy directs:
They always want your time. You find yourself trying to sneak into your office without being noticed. You know that if they see you, you have just lost several hours of your life never to be returned.
They always need reassurance. Needy direct reports value your opinion so much that they need your approval and reassurance on everything. Everything. #Everything. Ex: “Yes, I think the sandwich platter you ordered for our next lunch meeting will be fine. Yes, I think you did a good job of ordering just enough turkey sandwiches. No, I don’t think Rebecca will care if her veggie sandwich has tomatoes. No, I don’t think it matters what kind of cookies you get. Etc…”
They always need feedback. I’m not talking about the simple and healthy process of asking for feedback. No. I’m talking about you dying under the crushing weight of constant prodding for feedback. Ex: “No, we can not meet every week for the next year to discuss your most recent performance review and to review your current progress.”
They always need to know where they stand. These folks take the phrase “in absence of communication, people always assume the worst” to a whole new level. They need to not only know where they stand with you, but they often want to know when they are going to get promoted… even right after they have accepted a promotion. Ex: “Our general philosophy around here is that one stays in a job for at least 6 months before another promotion. You know… Enough time to sufficiently do the job they are currently in.”
Notice the consistent word in the attributes above – always. Needy direct reports are managerial dream-killers. Anyone who ever wanted to be a manager soon finds the idea as painful as plucking nose hairs after having a needy direct report (you can thank me for that image).
How to manage a needy direct report
There are a few simple tactics to manage a needy direct report and keep those Greeks at bay. The key in all of these is being “proactive” and on the offensive rather than on the defensive. Our needy direct reports are continually on the offensive, assailing us at every turn. Defense won’t work. You need to fight back with the following:
Schedule time with them weekly (ideally at the same time on the same day each week). This replaces any impromptu meetings they try to thrust on you. Stick to your schedule and don’t let them hijack you in the hallway.
Require them to send an agenda ahead of time. This serves two important purposes. First, it puts the ownership on them. Second, it allows you to prepare for the conversation without being blindsided by a “so what did you think of my TPS reports yesterday?”
Give them as close to 5 positive pieces of feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback. This may be difficult for you on many levels, but it is necessary if you want to keep their anxiety and insecurity under control.
Tell them where they stand and where they are going. If you can, try to provide them a clear road map in the organization for the foreseeable future.
Maintain strong boundaries. “No” needs to become your friend. Go ahead. Say it. “No.” Nada. Zilch. #No.
Finally, have them read my posts on “I thought I was a Rock Star until they let me go.” Here’s the link.
Now that I think about it, I’m sure a needy direct report would have no problem harassing you for 10 years or more.
Dave was a small business owner. His business, like many, had been hit hard by the recession. Doing business the way it had been done before just wasn’t going to work anymore. He needed to change his business model, how he approached his customers, his processes, etc… And with that, his people needed to change. The problem? Dave has had his business for over 30 years and many of his employees have been with him since the beginning. They were like family. No one represented this better than Wanda. She had been an office manager for Dave for the past 20 years and had somehow managed to function without ever learning how to use a computer. She had resisted any form of technology. Unless the whole world loses electrical power (making Wanda a tribal queen overnight), the days of avoiding technology were coming to an end and Dave knew it. Wanda was no longer competent to do her job and her time was running out.
One morning as I visited Dave and we were discussing Wanda, he said to me the following in a smooth southern accent:
“I don’t want to have to take the family cocker spaniel out back and shoot it, but I know that might be what I have to do.”
What is incompetence?
Are you dealing with a direct report that is incompetent? Let me call a “time out” and define “incompetence” as it relates to direct reports. Sometimes incompetence is a temporary condition. The job has changed and for a short time, the person will be incompetent until he or she learns the skills and competencies necessary to be effective. Other times, incompetence is a persistent condition. The person frankly may not have the horsepower to learn what you need him or her to learn and thus, he or she remains incompetent. Sometimes, fear takes over and the individual resists any efforts to get him or her to change. Regardless, the goal for us is to quickly determine what kind of incompetence we are dealing with and attempt to enact the “right” change.
How to make a direct report competent (if you can)
So where do you start? Consider these steps:
Be honest with yourself. Yeah, I know how much you just love Amy. She’s just such a nice person. She bakes fantastic homemade snickerdoodles. Oh, and she’s the first to volunteer to dog sit when you go out of town. I get it. But Amy started as a customer service representative and now her job has changed to become a cross between business analyst, programmer and social media guru. Be honest with yourself. Are you asking too much of Amy? Start with the job description and then consider the person. DON’T create the job description to fit the person. I rarely see that play well. When jobs are made to fit the person to force a fit, the individual ends up hobbling along until they eventually leave. And when they leave, you are left holding this funky job that fits no one, but the person who just left.
Be honest with them. There is no greater gift than the gift of honesty and directness accompanied with a healthy dose of compassion. Explain to your direct report what you need. Tell him or her that you value them and you want them to be part of your team going forward, but if they can’t make the shift they’ll need to find another home. Be crystal clear in your expectations so it is easy for you to know if progress is being made. For example, don’t say: “I need you to get up to speed on social media.” You’ll end up with a direct report inviting you to their snickerdoodle and dog-themed birthday party via Facebook. Instead, do say: “I need you to be able to monitor customer feedback via social media and post on at least 3 social media outlets daily on our behalf. In addition, I need you to be able to report quarterly on what trends you are seeing and what you recommend that we do as an organization.”
Start with something easy. Change is hard, folks. Don’t believe me? Try to change your routine for 21 days and you’ll see what I mean. Not easy. So help the person out by starting with something easy. Find the easiest place to start, give them an easy first assignment and check in weekly. Ex: “The first place I want you to start is by setting up a Twitter account. Next, I want you to begin to follow individuals and organizations that you believe we should be watching. When we meet next week, I want you to fill me in on what you’ve done.”
Don’t be afraid to rip off the Band-Aid. I’m a huge believer in giving people a fighting chance to change. I’ve also learned (through many cuts, scrapes and bruises), that most people don’t change. That being said, let them surprise you. Give them a chance. There is nothing more beautiful in life than watching someone overcome their fears and surprise you and themselves. The flip side of that is what most managers do. There is nothing more painful and cruel than to watch someone flail about, unable to change and neither their manager nor they stop it for months bleeding into years. The individual suffers, the manager looks pathetic and for the rest of the group, it’s a morale-killer. Don’t be that person. Rip the Band-Aid off if change isn’t happening.
A final word
This isn’t rocket science. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is bad news. In order to do this well, it requires two things in short supply today: clarity and courage. Be clear on what you want so the person has a fighting chance to make the change. You owe it to them. Have the courage to end the experiment quickly if it is causing more pain than progress. You owe that to them as well. Neither will be easy and it will require effort and intentionality on your part.
If you’ve ever had the unfortunate task of managing a saboteur, you know how tricky and dangerous it can be. “But wait, Brandon,” you say. “What do you mean by ‘saboteur?’ I thought saboteurs cut wires, plant bombs and generally mess up stuff?” Yep, you got it. While a corporate saboteur might not plant the kind of bombs that kill people, they set traps nonetheless. And nothing is more dangerous than a sabotaging direct report. If you are their boss, nothing pleases them more than finding ways for things blow up in your face.
“But I’m a nice person,” you plead. “Why would anyone want to be so mean to such a wonderful beautiful human being like me? I’m so wonderful that I should be on a Hallmark card.” You are beautiful, but I’m sorry to say, a sabotaging direct report doesn’t care. There are several reasons why you might end up stuck with a sabotaging direct report. Here are some of the most common that I see:
Why Would Someone Want to Sabotage You?
You took their job – I hear story after story of bosses who get tapped for a job that someone else wanted and still believes he or she deserves. Maybe they were your peer at one point and now you are their boss or maybe they’ve got you beat on seniority and age. Regardless of the reason, saboteurs can emerge if they think you have something they want. They simply just need to knock you off.
You represent change – Damn the man. Sometimes saboteurs emerge wearing berets, Che Guevara t-shirts and leading rebels against change (not for change ironically). If you have been tasked with leading a big-time change initiative in a traditional workplace, you might end up with a saboteur trying to stop you.
They don’t like you – Its junior high school all over again. Heather has decided you are mean. Miguel doesn’t like your style. Steve thinks you play favorites. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it does happen. Sometimes you end up with a junior high kid stuck in an adult body working for you, and they do junior high things. They talk bad about you behind your back. They are passive aggressive in meetings. They have parties and invite everyone else in the office except for you (yes, I have seen this happen).
What do you do?
3 Ways to Stop a Sabotaging Direct Report
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Yep, I know. You don’t like this person. You don’t like the way they work. You don’t like the way they act. Heck, you probably don’t like the way they look. Get over it. The worst thing you can do for a saboteur is give them space and darkness in which to work. On top of that, most saboteurs are sabotaging because, deep down, they don’t feel heard or noticed. So, go notice them. Take them out to coffee and listen to their stories and opinions. And not just once. Meet with them at least once a week and help them to feel valued and special. It is difficult to sabotage someone who values you.Be that person.
Isolate them. Saboteurs are never alone. That’s the subtlety of these surface lone wolfs. Underneath the surface, they are always trying to please or impress others. Perhaps they are trying to impress your boss so they can get your job. Or perhaps they are trying to enlist more supporters to their side. Regardless, they need the validation of others to do what they do. Cut off the source. Isolate them so they truly are alone. I’ve seen managers accomplish this by changing the saboteur’s role so they have no “team” to work with. I’ve seen other managers move the saboteur’s office so they sit far away from others (just not too far from you). Just like any spy or saboteur, if you cut off their funding, they are done. Find the source of their motivation and severe the cord.
Fire them. If all else fails, get rid of them. If you’ve tried offering olive branches and you’ve been shunned at every turn, it’s not a good sign. And if you try to isolate them from others and they continue to find creative ways to keep the channels alive (Ex: after hour dinner parties, etc…), you’ve got a real nasty on your hands. Let them go as soon as possible and I promise you’ll see things turn around in no time. Things you didn’t realize they were sabotaging will begin to start working the right way. The skies will part and sun will shine.
Saboteurs are dangerous. Their goal is simple: to take you down. There is one more thing I need to tell you before I send you on your way. You are alone. Alone. “What?” you gasp. “This is not cool. Brandon, you are supposed to be inspirational and this is NOT inspirational. You make me want to crawl under my covers and cry.” I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t want to be a buzz-kill, but I want you to know what you are facing. Others around you are quite clear on what’s going on and they don’t want to be you or anywhere near you. They want to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. So don’t look for other direct reports to come to your side. Don’t count on it.
I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I hear a lot of stuff. I guess it comes with the profession. Joys, frustrations, worries, opinions, rants, you name it and I’ve probably heard it. When the person across from me happens to be a manager, the conversation almost always finds its way to the topic of direct reports. Often there is one particular direct report that represents the thorn in the manager’s side. Sometimes, the issue is that the direct report that just can’t seem to “get it.” Other times, the direct report has become the manager’s nemesis. Having done this rodeo a time or two, I can tell you that sometimes the manager has got a real nightmare on their hands.Other times, they are either overreacting or actually creating the problem themselves through poor leadership or bad communication. How do I know? Or better yet, how can you tell the difference yourself?
Signs You’ve Got a Problem Direct Report
There are several signs I look for as the conversation meanders. Read the following and make a mental note on how many times you find yourself nodding your head.
When you are hanging out with family and friends, you spend more time talking about your irritating direct report than any other person in the world. Not good.
You either have restless nights or actual nightmares starring your direct report and their shenanigans.
The last time you felt this all-consumed and frustrated was that toxic relationship you had back in college (extra points if you stalk your direct report via social media).
You dream of finding ways to get your direct report another job. And if you could convince the competition to higher him or her, that’s a win-win (extra points if you have sent their resume to anyone).
When your direct report is on vacation, people seem to work better (happier, more productive, etc…). Extra points if you have ever intentionally sent them on vacation to increase productivity (one client of mine actually sent their direct report on a mission trip to Africa for six months).
You’ve met with your direct report at least 3 times to discuss changes in their performance. The result? Nada, nothing, zilch, it’s the same old song and dance (extra points if you’ve exceeded 5 conversations).
In team meetings, your direct report is creatively disruptive (derails conversations, crosses their arms, interrupts or argues with you, plays on their phone, etc…).
You get complaints about your direct report from any of the following people: customers, other departments, other direct reports, your peers, your boss (extra points if you’ve heard complaints from ALL of those groups).
So, how did you do? If you answered “Yes” to at least half of the signs above, you’ve probably got a problem.If you ended up with a perfect score, congratulations. You have found your nemesis: your Lex Luthor, your Ursula, your Darth Vader, your wicked step sister, you get the idea. Recognizing what you are dealing with is half the battle. The second half is doing something about it.Hold tight. Prescriptions and treatment plans are on their way.
It was my fourth call with Theresa in a week and I was beginning to feel like I was in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Theresa’s direct report, Steven, had been causing her headache after massive headache. “Steven just doesn’t get it,” she blurted. “What’s the latest this time?” I asked. Like each of our recent calls, Theresa would open by rattling off a laundry list of “doesn’t get it” items that would make any manager cry. From failing to participate during leadership team meetings (Steven preferred to slouch in his chair with his arms crossed) to passive aggressively sabotaging change initiatives, Steven had become Theresa’s nemesis. And at this stage in the game, “fed up” didn’t do Theresa’s level of frustration justice. As we neared the end our call, Theresa abruptly stopped talking leaving a prolonged silence in her wake. Wondering if we had been disconnected, I began to ask if Theresa was still on the line when she broke the silence with one simple and profound statement. “It’s either him or me,” she said.
Over the last three months, Theresa had been growing increasingly frustrated with Steven. Tasked with changing a struggling business unit’s performance, Theresa had been sent by corporate to lead the turnaround effort. And as corporate’s reigning change master, this wasn’t Theresa’s first rodeo. After leading a half dozen turnarounds, Theresa had developed her own playbook for successful change. Once she arrived and assessed the situation, she consulted her trusty change playbook and began executing step one – getting her team on board. Over the next several months, she spent time taking members of her leadership team out to lunch, getting to know each of them personally and ultimately moving them to a place of trust and buy-in. One by one, she was successful in winning over her team, all except for Steven.
Prior to Theresa’s arrival, the business unit had undergone several consecutive years of declining earnings. The former leader of the unit had been going through a nasty divorce and, as a result, had been consumed with personal problems. In that vacuum, Steven had emerged as the informal leader of the unit. As the VP of sales and with a tenure of nearly 30 years in the group, it made perfect sense. With Theresa’s arrival, however, there was a new sheriff in town. From the moment the decision was announced that Theresa would be leading the group, Steven began voicing his displeasure. He thought that should have been his job. Now, not only was there someone sitting in the seat he wanted, she was making decisions that went counter to what he would do and had been doing. He wanted Theresa gone. As a result, he made it his goal to make her as miserable as possible. To make things more complicated, Steven had been the only shining star in the business. He and his team brought in tens of millions of dollars in reoccurring revenue annually through his long-term relationships with key clients. Simply put, if it wasn’t for those long-term relationships that Steven had cultivated, the business would have been shuttered years ago. Letting him go could pose a risk that Theresa (or corporate) might not be willing to take.
If this was a Harvard Business School case, Theresa would look out her office window and sip her coffee as she wondered what to do next. We as the readers would contemplate, discuss and debate. But this isn’t an HBS case. This is real-life and Theresa has a major problem facing her each and every day she walks into work. This problem is rife with emotion, tension, anxiety and anger. There is no escape and no time to waste.
My direct report is dysfunctional
This month is all about dealing with this very problem: the dysfunctional direct report. My goal is not to discuss or to debate, but to give you some tangible actions you can take to fix the problem ASAP. Among other topics, we are going to address:
Signs you’ve got a direct report problem. A real direct report issue can not only cause you sleepless nights, but it can cost you performance and talent on your team. Is your problem nearing nuclear meltdown or is it a minor blip that you need to manage?
Are you the problem? Sometimes the direct report issue is not a problem with the direct report. It is a problem with the manager. I’ll give you the “self-diagnosis” check-up you need to ensure the problem isn’t actually the person staring in the mirror staring back at you.
The nastiest direct report patterns and the corresponding treatment for each. From the saboteur to the incompetent direct report, there are a handful of common direct report ailments that each require a custom treatment plan. Using the right approach for the situation is the difference between success and failure.
When it comes to dysfunctional direct reports, time is not in your favor. The longer you wait, the bigger the cancer grows. You must move swiftly, precisely and with complete commitment to your plan if you have any hope of turning things around. And in the end, you may end up facing the same choice as Theresa, “It’s either him or me.” We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Ken was part of the leadership team at a large public university. And every week, the senior leadership team would meet to discuss “strategic initiatives.” The meetings didn’t bother Ken all that much. What bothered Ken was the complete lack of action after the meetings. No one on the team ever did anything when the meetings ended. Even worse, the meetings never acknowledged the prior meeting and the action items that were supposed to get accomplished during the week that passed. It was like being stuck in the movie “Groundhog Day.” And as a former Marine, it was driving Ken nuts.
Meetings like this are truly a shame. Pretty soon participants are going to start behaving like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. With no obvious accountability, they can do whatever they want. Not show up. Come to meeting in workout clothes. Check Facebook. Eat a bag of chips. Etc…
So how do you ensure a productive post meeting? Very simple. Consider the following prescription:
Get participants to commit to what they are going to do out loud. There is nothing more effective at ensuring buy-in, accountability and execution than getting a person to announce to the group what he or she is going to do between now and the next time they meet. Dedicate 10 minutes at the end of every meeting to allow each person to say to the group what they are going to do. The other benefit of this approach is that it makes the “avoiders” quite obvious when they have nothing to say when it is their turn.
Put “Follow-up on Action Items” the first item on the next meeting’s agenda. If participants know you are going to check in to ensure they do what they say they are going to do, it is one more incentive to make sure they get something done. It’s all the more powerful when the accountability is being done in front of the group. Team members want to look prepared in front of their peers. Never underestimate the power of Jr. High peer pressure.
Assign someone the role of e-mailing a summary list of participants’ commitments. Great meetings have solid post-meeting hygiene. Ensure you are covering all of the bases by sending out to everyone their agreed upon action items. This serves as one more accountability mechanism because now it’s not just talk. It’s in writing.
Ensure participants actually have time to do what they need to do. In the graduate business school classroom, we professors have a saying that for every one hour in the classroom, students can expect two hours of pre-work. A similar ratio should be true for meetings. You need to allow a minimum of one hour of work time for every meeting hour scheduled (two or more would be a gold standard). If one followed that ratio, we would quickly see that no one should have more than four hours of meetings in a given day. We can dream.
See, I told you. Simple, easy and commonsensical. And yet, how many meetings have this kind of hygiene and accountability? As a leader I was coaching this week said to me, “people like you bring common sense and simple principles. It’s not hard, but somewhere along the line, leaders forget. I guess that’s why you get paid the big bucks.”
John’s meetings were some of the most painful I had ever experienced. Every week John would call a meeting with his senior leadership team (and I use that term loosely) in an effort to keep them updated, aligned and focused on what needed to get done. One by one, the members of his senior leadership team, all eight of them, would file into the room. They would find their seats, get settled and then proceed to turn their brains off. For the next hour, John would proclaim, ponder, question, entertain, inquire and generally try any approach he could think of in hopes of engaging them in dialogue. Typically all John would elicit would be the occasional trail of drool out of the corner of an attendee’s mouth. It was like trying to lead a meeting of workplace zombies. At the end of the hour, each individual would gather their things and quietly leave the room, never uttering a word to John or to each other. Once back in their respective domains, they would proceed to tell their teams to not collaborate with the other departments and only to do what he or she instructed. Leadership fail.
John’s dysfunctional leadership team meetings are simply one example of how dysfunction can rear it’s ugly heads in meetings. From attendee disengagement to the rogue emotional vampire, from the overly critical team member to individuals who say one thing and do something entirely different when they leave the room, meeting dysfunction can take so many messy forms. So how do you ensure a “dysfunction-free” meeting? I recommend the following prescription. Take daily:
1. Set meeting ground rules.Great meetings operate on a clear set of ground rules set by the leader. These ground rules set the expectations on what the leader wants to see (and doesn’t want to see) during each and every meeting. If you haven’t already established meeting ground rules for your team, I recommend starting off your next meeting by facilitating a discussion on what the meeting ground rules should be for the group. Once agreed, formalize those ground rules in some way (PowerPoint slide, poster, flipchart page, etc…) that allows you to bring those same ground rules back at the beginning of each and every meeting as a reminder on how to operate. This will make policing bad behavior a heck of a lot easier. When I facilitate this discussion with leadership teams, I have a few favorites I always try to work into the discussion. Consider these to get you started:
Silence = Acceptance – if you don’t say anything during the meeting it indicates that you agree with everything being said.
Be Authors, Not Editors – always provide a solution if you critique an idea or an individual. The world has plenty of critics already.
Las Vegas Rules Apply – what is said in the room during meetings, stays in the room.
Don’t Try to Say It Perfectly – just spit it out. I have seen too many great ideas and valid opinions are held back because participants try to say it perfectly at just the right time. Just say it.
Leave as One Team – Debate in the meeting but support each other when you leave the room.
2. Assign a timekeeper. This can be your job as the leader or you can delegate the role. The point is to assign someone the task of watching the clock to ensure the meeting finishes on time and to vocally attend to discussions that may have gone off topic. This role is vitally important. No meeting should ever go over its allotted time without the full consent of all participants in attendance. This is necessary to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and your credibility as a leader. This person also needs to be ready to confront bad behavior. Meetings are a feeding frenzy for emotional vampires. They’ll suck and suck until all the energy in the room is gone and the meeting is significantly derailed. The timekeeper needs to be armed with the following phrase, “Let’s call a quick time out. It appears our discussion is going down a different path from the agenda. We need to decide if this is the path we want to go down or if we need to table this for a later discussion.” This brings me to my final meeting inoculation against dysfunction…
3. Establish a “parking lot” for ideas or topics that emerge but don’t fit with the purpose of the meeting. A common meeting technique, declare a space (whiteboard, flipchart, blank document, etc…) that’s sole purpose is to capture valuable discussions that need to continue but DO NOT need to continue during the current meeting. Examples would include:
Topics that only pertain to a small portion of the players in the room
Ideas that are in the early stages and are not ready to present to the group in a way that is valuable and productive (Ex: opinions vs. evidence and data)
A strongly held opinion that does not fall within the agenda and/or is a poor use of the group’s time (Ex: “And since we are on the topic of celebrating our unit’s success, I have a particular opinion on the food we should order for those events. The stuffed mushrooms we had last time were horrendous.”)
Some of you may look at my list above and label it “too corporate.” After all, phrases like “parking lot” don’t really live outside of corporate-speak, right? If that’s you, you’re the non-traditional type. You just gotta go against the grain. Here is a list of alternative medicines for curing meeting dysfunction that may fit you better. However, like any alternative medicines, the evidence and success rates are inconclusive. Take at your own risk:
Standing meetings – in an effort to reduce meeting times and to keep meetings moving more quickly, a growing technique employed by some managers is to enforce a “no-chairs” meeting. Applied to the proper meeting purpose, this can be a nice way to reinforce the importance of brevity and using the group’s time efficiently. However, if something needs debate and discussion, you may have some cranky attendees on your hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing “yoga pose” meetings. Hold downward facing dog until the discussion is over. Now that’s incentive to hurry up.
Walking meetings – A new growing trend, this “walking meeting” is exactly that. Meeting attendees walk with the meeting leader around “campus” while they chat. This has emerged in an effort to fight the latest corporate disease of the day: “sitting disease.” Walking, talking, deciding… now all we need is to rub our tummies at the same time and we are complete.
Over sized clocks in all meeting rooms – One organization put in place large clocks (and I mean LARGE) in all meeting rooms in an effort to reinforce the importance of keeping things moving. Large and loud, they definitely made a point. Was it the right one? Hmm…
People’s time is important. It is our job to honor it. Follow the above criteria and you are set up for a more efficient and effective meeting. And one more thing, avoid bringing or encouraging snacks in meetings. I’ve attended meetings with plates of brownies, homemade cookies, cheese dip, cute little dainty sandwiches, etc… Meetings are not supposed to be trips to Ryan’s Steakhouse. They are meetings. Not to mention, after several of these buffet meetings, “walking meetings” will soon be in your future whether you like it or not. Trust me.