Why my clients get fired

I haverock_star_graphic an interesting job.  Some might call it a little crazy (I wouldn’t disagree).  After all, who’s ever heard of a workplace therapist?  When I’m doing my workplace therapist thing, one of the more important roles I play is that of an executive coach.  And let me tell ya, this “coaching thing” can take many forms.  Sometimes I’m hired to support a newly promoted leader (“happy coaching”).  Other times, I’m hired to help a leader round out his or her rough edges (“development coaching”).  And then sometimes I’m hired to save a client from being fired (“fixer coaching”).  And sometimes, I fail. 

Recently I’ve been reflecting on all of the clients I’ve worked with over the years who I failed.  And when I say “failed,” I mean it.  They lost their jobs.  Exited.  Fired.  Canned.  Booted.  Downsized.  Invited to leave.  On the surface, the reasons were not obvious.  It’s not like these individuals were unethical, unprofessional or walking H.R. nightmares.  No.  The reasons were much more subtle.  Over many hours at the gym, shower-time-pondering and long Atlanta commutes, here’s what I’ve come to (it’s actually a pretty short list):

They function like consultants and not like owners

All consultants, former or current, need to take note.  In fact, share this with your consultant friends.  These clients held onto their consultant hat way too long.  Maybe they were once consultants and now they were hired into a senior role by a company.  Or maybe they held internal “consulting” kinda roles (regional director, etc…).  Regardless, they were reluctant to take ownership inside their organizations and push results.  They preferred to spend their time thinking big thoughts and painting bold strategies.  They are rarely around (think workplace ghost) and when they are, they are masters at delegating so well that nothing is left on their own plate.  No one really knows what they do.

They are reactive and not proactive

These individuals can never seem to get in front of any problem or issue.  Their days are spent putting out fires – usually ones they’ve themselves created.  They appear unprepared and reactive in meetings and seem to lack the ability to follow things fully through.  This is the kind of feedback I’ve heard over the years about these folks:

  • “He can’t tell his boss ‘no.’ Ever.  This just means we’re left to do the work, and we’re already overloaded as it is.”
  • “She is constantly changing her priorities.  Daily.  Her priorities seem completely driven by random conversations she has in the hallway.”
  • “He is not strategic.  He just reacts to stuff.  Honestly, I don’t think he can think beyond this week, even if he was forced to.”
  • “She never takes initiative.  She just sits in meetings and waits for her boss (the CEO) to tell her what to go do.”

They have no fans

SeveImAstar256ral years ago, I had just completed a round of 360 interviews for one particular client and it was time to meet with him to review the feedback.  I sat down with him to go over the rather hefty report and as I began, point by point, he attempted to discredit every potentially negative piece of feedback I presented to him.  When I finished, I closed the report and looked up at him.  He looked back at me with a smug expression as if he had won.  I pushed the report to one side, slowly leaned forward and matter-of-factly said to him, “You have a fan problem.  The problem is that you have none.”  Leaders with rough edges tend to have at least some fans.  But if someone doesn’t have any fans (not administrative assistants, direct reports, peers, bosses, customers, the janitor, etc…), the writing is on the wall.  He was “invited to leave” about two months later.

That’s my list so far.  As I think back to all of my “downsized” clients through the years, they really didn’t have too much in common (other than rock star resumes which should tell us something).  There were men and women equally in that group.  They represented different ethnicities as well as a variety of industries.  They were Directors, Vice Presidents and C-Level Execs.  But what they all did have in common is that they had at least some combination of the items above before they were shown the door.

That’s what I’ve seen.  So the big question to you is:

What am I missing?

Other than naked pics of course.   Those never go over well.

Prescription – getting and keeping your rock star status at work

This month we’ve tackled one of the more common dysfunctions in recent years “I thought I was a rock star… until they let me go.”  We’ve spotted the warning signs and we’ve leaped over the traps.  Now it’s time to think proactively about what we can do to maintain our status as “rock stars” at work.  Here’s your prescription – refill as necessary:

Your Daily Rock Star Regimen

  • 2 Doses of Humility Daily – Are you staying humble?  Perpetual rock stars never lose sight of the reality that their “fame and fortune” could be gone tomorrow.  For your first dose of humility, know everyone at work by their first name and say “hello.”  This includes the receptionist, temporary employees and even the cleaning crew.  For your second dose of humility, always be willing to do the dirty work.  You are never too good to get your hands dirty.  Make sure everyone sees you working alongside of them – not above them.
  • Deliver at a High Level Daily – You became a rock star because of your work ethic and work product.  Don’t ever let that slip.  Just like with any good health regimen, maintaining your rock star status involves an ounce of discipline and a shot of ownership / pride in your work.  Maintain your standards.  Remember, organizations have short memories.  What have you done for them lately?  Make sure you are reliable and consistently contributing.

Your Weekly Rock Star Regimen

  • 2 Lunches Weekly – Be intentional about building relationships up, down and across in your organization.  This is what nearly all rock stars do to get to the top.  Keep it up to protect your status.  Every week you should have at least two lunches scheduled with your co-workers to make sure you are building relationships throughout the organization.  Don’t dine alone.
  • Stay Current with Trends and Sell Tickets Weekly – Make sure you are asking questions regularly of others about the challenges they are facing weekly (not monthly or worse yet, annually).  Your job is then to position yourself as the solution to their challenges.  Enduring rock stars always have their pulse on the issues the organization is facing and position themselves as part of the solution.  In other words, you can never stop selling tickets to your show.  Trends change.  If you don’t stay current, you’ll be part of last season’s fashions fast.

Your Monthly Rock Star Regimen

  • Brand Check-Up Monthly – How do your co-workers perceive you at work?  This is your brand.  Make sure you are taking the pulse of your brand monthly.  Get yourself one or more trusted advisors that will tell you the truth without pulling any punches.  Check in with them monthly to make sure your fans are still around.  One bad fan can poison the well so make sure if you have an unhappy “customer” (a co-worker that is upset with you), you become aware of it as soon as possible and manage it quickly.  You don’t need unintended enemies.  In addition, as part of your check-up, listen closely to how people perceive you.  What are the words they would use to describe you to someone who is new to the organization?  Is it what you would want them to say?  Image isn’t everything, but it matters.  Manage it well.

There you have it – the prescription to maintaining your rock star status at work.  It will take discipline, hard work and intention.  Keep it up, watch for the warning signs and avoid the traps.  Before you know it, you’ll be entered into the “rock star hall of fame.”  Where is that these days anyway?

Stay tuned to March’s dysfunction of the month – “I don’t trust my boss.”  Juicy!

3 final rock star traps that can cost you your reputation… and your job

We’ve talked about many of the dangerous traps that rock stars at work face: becoming high maintenance, not following the rules and ceasing to build the relationships at work they need.  However, the traps don’t end there.  There are three more dangerous traps that snag high performers at work and drag them down and out.  Each is deadly and can lead to the end of one’s tenure virtually overnight.

Take stock in the following and make sure you haven’t accidentally slipped into any of these:

  • Taking all of the spotlight – While it is fine to take some well deserved credit for your hard work, I’ve seen some stars at work get addicted to the shine.   They don’t like to share the spotlight and get threatened when they see others in the light.  This can lead to them intentionally undermining others and/or taking more credit than they deserve.   Are you alone in the light?   Share the shine. 
  • Touring with the wrong band – I’ve seen some rising stars at work that have been sunk simply because they hitched their star to the wrong people.  Leadership changes and suddenly the rock stars greatest ally is now their greatest liability.  Are you inadvertently anchoring yourself to someone else’s career?  Cast a wider net.
  • Stop delivering – Then there are the rock stars that simply stop delivering.  They become so intoxicated by their fame that they begin to believe that “they” are the reason for their rock star status, not their performance.  Organizations have short memories.  What have you done lately?  Keep your performance consistently high.  It’s not you they love, it’s your performance. 

That wraps up our rock star traps.  They are all subtle, sticky and extremely dangerous to one’s reputation and career.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if not watched closely you could find yourself going from rising star in your organization where you are “selling out venues every night” to looking for opportunities elsewhere – “playing in local dive bars.”  None of us want that.  Be vigilant and more importantly – be honest with yourself!

Next week we conclude this month’s dysfunction with the “prescription” you need to get and keep yourself on top – maintaining your rock star status and not letting fame go to your head.  Stay tuned! 

Have you stopped networking at work?

Have you stopped networking at work?  Networking – there’s that word that we hear so often these days.  It’s an incredibly important and vastly overused term.  So what do we mean when we say “networking at work” and why does it matter to us?  Simply put, we are talking about investing in and building relationships with the people we work with directly and indirectly.  It means getting to know the people on our team, our manager and our coworkers in other departments (or even other locations).  This is a skill that rising rock stars excel at.  They are intentional and focused at getting to know those people that make decisions as well as those people that can help them get the work done.  They build their reputation and “sell tickets” on a daily basis ultimately helping them to rise up in the organization until they finally “top the charts.”  It is at the point that the rock star “tops the charts” that he or she is susceptible.  I often see a dangerous switch thrown in the superstar’s head.  They begin to say to themselves, “I no longer need to seek out relationships.  After all, I’m the important one around here.  It’s everyone else’s job to network with me.”

Have you fallen prey to this deadly trap?  Here’s a quiz to see if you’ve inadvertently thrown the switch and are heading in the wrong direction:

Rock Star Networking Quiz:

1.       The last time I invited a co-worker to lunch was:

a. This week
b. Last week
c. Last month
d. Over a month ago

 2.       I know something personal (not work-related) about the following co-workers:

a. Everyone on my team
b. The majority of the people on my team
c. One or two people I work with
d. no one currently – all of those people have left

3.       The following people know me AND call me by my first name at work:

a. Everyone – from senior leadership down to the receptionist
b. Most people throughout the organization
c. My team only
d. No one calls me by my first name

4.       Of the new employees who have started work here over the last year, I have voluntarily introduced myself to:

a. All of them.  I take it upon myself to help them get used to the place
b. The ones I work with most directly
c. A small handful
d. No one

 5.       People tell me that when my name comes up in meetings or discussions:

a. Several people sing my praises and mention me as a possible solution to the problem they are discussing
b. Someone in the meeting mentions me as a possible resource to speak with
c. I am rarely told that my name comes up in meetings
d. I can’t remember the last time someone told me that my name came up in a meeting

So, how did you do?  Add up your score using the following key:

a.=3 points                                  c.=1 point
b.=2 points                                 d.=0 points

Now that you have your total score, here’s a breakdown:

(13-15pts.) You are a true networking rock star – you see the value of constantly building strategic relationships and you are already reaping the benefits of that hard work.  You are more than holding your own and your star is likely on the rise.

(9-12pts.) You are doing an adequate job of networking at work– you might not be the household name in your organization that you would like, but you have some key relationships built that will serve you well.

(5-8pts.) You are slipping – you’ve lost your networking edge, but it’s not too late to get it back.  Refocus and don’t dine alone.

(0-4pts.) Your name is likely at the top of the wrong list – if there is another round of layoffs, you are at risk of being on that list.  You need to build some relationships and fast!

The rock star at work that stands the test of time understands that change is part of the game.  And that means players on the board change.  Enduring rock stars continuously and proactively build relationships with all of the people they work with, creating more opportunities for themselves and protecting themselves from possible disaster.  You can never stop “selling tickets” or “promoting your next show,” no matter how famous at work you may appear to be.

Have you stopped following the rules at work?

Have you stopped following the rules at work?  You’re probably thinking “Of course not.”  How dare I even propose such a ridiculous accusation.  Shame on me.  But just suppose what I’m suggesting isn’t too far from the truth.  If you were gut-level honest with yourself, are you “really” following all the rules at work?   This is one of the most subtle of all of the rock star traps.  It can happen with the most innocent beginnings and it can end with some of the most severe consequences.  Here are some of the most common examples of subtly (or not so subtly) refusing to follow the rules at work:

  • I’m working on my schedule, not theirs – You’re used to getting things done on whatever timetable it takes, even when that means putting in the big hours at work.  So, naturally, when things slow down you want to “balance things out” and take some extra time in the slow periods to take care of things in life you need to get done.  You declare you are “working from home.”  Others are declaring you “big headed.”
  • That new policy is ridiculous and I’m not following it – just like the example of the rock star retailer who refused to embrace the new corporate policy of selling credit cards (see: Warning signs you are losing your fans – Part 2), you may be thinking to yourself “what do these people know… nothing.  I know what needs to get done around here and I know how to produce.  As long as I get results, why should they care?”  Oh, they care, and they are watching to see who’s onboard.
  • With all I do, it’s only fair – This statement is a slippery slope.  It begins with subtle things like taking home pens and paper from work.  It can quickly move into “bending” the rules with expenses so you can get the points you want or that delicious porterhouse when you are on that rough business trip.  Recently a judge was accused of bending such rules.  In the end, she had set her own rules on who could visit her and when in her courtroom (interfering with public access), she had inmates working at her church without compensation, and she had taken steps to clear a male companion of his child support obligations so he could travel with her on a romantic getaway.  I’m sure it all began with a rationalization of how it was “only fair” given all she does.

Holding aside the moral, ethical and legal pitfalls that accompany the above traps, the most important thing to remember is that leaders today, regardless of the organization, are looking for the rock star employees that they can trust.  If you look rogue, they won’t be ready to trust you with that promotion or that big opportunity you have been hoping for.  And in organizations where times are tough and it is a struggle to stay afloat, leaders are looking for employees who will follow orders down to the letter, period.  If you aren’t one of those, you will likely find yourself tossed overboard – guitar and all.

Have you become high-maintenance at work?

Have you become high-maintenance at work?  Has your rock star status gone to your head?  Perhaps one of the most common traps for high performers is the creeping desire for “special” treatment.  After all, haven’t you earned it?  Back in the 1980’s, the band Van Halen took this high maintenance trap to an extreme by stipulating in every contract that “there will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area.”  If they spotted a brown M&M, their temper tantrums were legendary.

But that kind of behavior doesn’t happen in the civilized world of “real” work does it?  Unfortunately, the “high maintenance” trap is an all too common occurrence.  We commonly see it with CEO’s.  One story shared with me over the past week involved a CEO that took the private company jet and then the private company helicopter so he could attend a NASCAR event.  This same CEO also had his own private elevator for just him.  No one else allowed.  O.k., but we aren’t CEO’s.  This wouldn’t happen to us, right?  Very simply, it can happen to anyone.  Have you ever done or do the following:

  • Demand that you will only fly on a certain airline / stay at certain hotels – For those of you who travel, this is one is all-too-common.  Heck, you probably do it.  Perhaps you’ll only fly a particular airline because you’ll get the miles or perhaps you will only stay at a particular hotel chain because of the level of service you receive.  I once had a colleague who refused to stay at a particular hotel chain because of the patterns on the bed spreads.  But you aren’t that bad, right?  You’ve got “real” reasons for your demands.  Sure you do.
  • Refuse to work with certain co-workers – Do you have a list of “incompetent” co-workers that you refuse to work with?  Do you refuse to attend meetings or work on projects with them?  Have you informed your boss of your demands?  Despite your standards for accepting “only the highest quality of work from yourself and others,” you may be more trouble than you are worth.
  • Complain frequently about… well, everything – Do you complain daily about the poor resources you have to work with, the working conditions you are in, and even the amount of time you are allotted to get something done.  If “complain, complain, complain” is how your co-workers might describe you, you may be topping the list of the next round of possible lay-offs.
  • Create a scene – Have you ever gotten so frustrated that you lost your cool?  Perhaps you yelled at your co-workers or you tossed innate objects around the room.  Or maybe you got up on your desk, yelled in pitches that only dogs could hear and caused everyone on your floor to hide under their desks like an elementary school fire drill.  This is not the story you want people to share about you, and believe me, it will be the first thing they tell the new guy.

My guess is that you may be more high maintenance than you think.  We all probably are.  The trick is to stop that slide before it gets out of control.  I have counseled too many “rock stars” that found themselves without a job and only themselves to blame – despite their efforts to blame the bed spreads and their “incompetent” co-workers.

Warning signs for the senior leader that you may be at risk of losing your job

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.

Warning signs you are losing your fans – Part 2

In my last post I discussed some of the big warning signs that we may be losing our fans (see: Warning signs you are losing your fans).  I’ve gotten quite a response!  I received the following story:

“I work in retail and I see this all too often.  I’ll give you a great example.  I work for a chain of clothing stores.  One of our high-end flagship stores had a particularly strong ‘rock star.’  She was exceptional at making high-end sales and placing custom orders for clients.  Our corporate office issued a new policy requiring that we also begin to ‘sell’ our store credit card to customers.  This rock star refused. Corporate asked her, cajoled her, even wrote her up and requested that she get coaching / counseling to shift her behavior / attitude.  She continued to refuse stating it was ‘below (her).’  Last week she was fired.”

Sometimes the warning signs are very clear to everyone else, but not to us.  Here are some additional examples of warning signs that were shared with me over the past week:

  • You are formally written up – I’m sorry, this is a “no brainer.”  But all too often, the rock star just looks the other way as if this formal reprimand really doesn’t mean anything.  “I’m a rock star and they need me around here.”  Everyone’s replaceable.  If you are getting formally notified that you need to change, the process of replacing you has begun.
  • You receive an unusually low performance review – This one is tricky.  I promise to dedicate an entire month to the dysfunction known as “the performance review.”  Rarely are they conducted properly, nor are they helpful in improving one’s performance.  That said, if you receive an unusually low performance review despite your continued production, look closely.  It is possible that the message being sent is that your approach to how you are getting things done is rubbing people the wrong way.
  • You get this roundabout, vague feedback from your manager – Have you ever had a conversation from your boss and left the conversation uncertain as to what he or she was trying to say?  You remember that there was something in the conversation about comments from your co-workers or some concern about your attitude, but it was all quite vague.  Addressing someone’s attitude is typically one of those inferred “fuzzy” conversations that bosses deliver (poorly usually) and hope that one reads between the lines.  If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these “what was he / she saying?” conversations, look again.  You may have just gotten an important warning that your star is dangerously close to burning out.
  • You’re asked to get coaching – This is not to be taken lightly.  If you hear this request, it is another way for your manager to say “I have no idea how to help you.  I’ve tried everything I can think of.  Let’s see if a professional can have any better success.”  This is a last resort.  I have seen countless rock stars get this request to seek coaching, dismiss it as “not urgent,” and find themselves playing in those dive bars we talked about shortly thereafter.

Watch for these so you can keep a good pulse on your fans and your rock star status.  In addition, I have had several comments that the warning signs for senior leaders are slightly different.  Look for that post coming soon!

Warning signs you are losing your fans

Remember VH1’s show “Behind the Music”? A fantastic and over-the-top show about the life of a rock star. Each show followed the same predictable formula: an aspiring rocker has a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, and then for various reasons (often self-induced), has an equally noteworthy fall to the bottom. The show would then conclude with a “where are they now” segment. Often our rocker would miraculously climb back to his or her previous fame and fortune. Other times he or she simply settled down to a comfortable life of frightening suburbanites at the neighborhood swimming pool. While we would all love to emulate these rockers’ meteoric rise in our own respective careers, I think you would agree with me that we would rather not partake in any catastrophic falls.

This brings us to a very important question: what are the signs that we are on the descent at work? How do we know when we begin to lose our fans and our fame is waning at the office? Here are a few warning signs:

  • No more applause – You used to get frequent kudos from your boss, but now – nothing. Nada. Just silence. Be very concerned with prolonged periods of silence. In the best cases, the boss may just be overwhelmed and can’t think of anything other than his or her own workload. However, in the worst cases it can be much worse. It could mean her or she is intentionally distancing him or herself from you in preparation for laying you off. This is a common self-protective practice with any boss prior to a lay-off in order to make the conversation less painful for him or her… but not necessarily lest painful for you.
  • No more gigs – You begin to notice that you are not getting asked to take on the big projects like you once were. At first, you are relieved because you were getting burnt out with the pace you were keeping at work (touring is tough, huh?). But, be wary. If being overlooked for projects becomes a trend, you could be in trouble – regardless of the reason you are given by your boss. Worse yet, if you begin to have work taken away and eventually find yourself with less work than your co-workers, you are losing relevance. Losing relevance means losing a job. Soon you’ll be playing in dive bars if you don’t watch out. Keep pace with everyone else’s workloads at a minimum.
  • You are no longer cool – There was a time when the organization couldn’t get enough of you and people like you. Be careful. In business, just like in music, there are trends, fashions and tastes that come in and out of favor. For example, there was a time in the mid-to-late 1990’s that if you had any knowledge of a computer and networking, you could name your price. Companies were throwing money and perks (even cars in some cases) to lure folks to their emerging I.T. departments. Today, the supply meets the demand. Graduates with degrees in information systems and computer engineering are running the show. Salaries are stable and being up to speed on the latest technology is no longer a differentiator – it is a requirement. Are you up to speed on the latest in your industry? Is your role and function still “cool?” Or are you suffering the fate of big hair bands of the ‘80’s? You may need to change your image before you are thrown out with last year’s fashions. Relevance is more important today than ever.

Any of these warning signs could mean danger so be on the lookout. On the flip side, what does it look like when you are on the rise in your organization? The opposite of all the warning signs above: you are regularly given kudos by your boss, you are given big problems to tackle in recognition of your superstar status and you have a unique skill set that is coveted by others inside and outside of your organization. If all of those positive aspects describe work for you today, your job is simple. Work your tail off to stay there. Being a rock star over time is no easy task. It involves hard work and constant vigilance for the warning signs of eventual decline, a responsibility that is solely yours. Don’t expect your manager to tell you, because they won’t (more on that in next weeks’ post).

Summing all of this up, looking for the warning signs that we may be losing our fans is critical to staying relevant and avoiding unwanted surprises (like a layoff) at work. Keep watch. If you aren’t careful, you may find yourself playing in local dive bars and hanging out by the neighborhood pool frightening the neighbors. Trust me, no one wants that.

“I thought I was a rock star”

I thought I was a rock star...until they let me go.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!).

…And off we go!