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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Delivering Bad News

Everyone in a leadership or management position has to deliver bad news from time to time. Human Resources professionals almost always are called upon to deliver the bad news. It just comes with the territory.

Trust me it is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. However, I have found that  it’s not always as scary as we make it out to be. We build it up in our minds and sometimes rush to get it over with is what often results in a negative outcome.

Below are some examples of news that we pray will disappear before we have to confront it.  Some fall into the Human Resources category while others are more management related.

  • Explaining to the world – and all your customers that a product has yet another major defect.
  • Telling a group of employees that you will no longer be offering medical insurance.
  • Telling a group of employees that they must take a pay cut.
  • Informing your boss that the company lost a key customer.
  • Telling your CEO that you have lost the presentation file he was to use in presenting to a huge prospect and he’s going to have to wing it.
  • Telling a group of employees that the Company will be having a major layoff.  For HR, telling an employee his/her job will be affected.

I can go on and on with examples and some really depressing stories, and while each one seems unique, there is, more or less, a single method for dealing with this most challenging of business situations.  By far the biggest mistake people make in delivering bad news is the emotional build up and the unnecessary rush to get it over with. They typically don’t take the time to:

  • Diffuse their own emotional state
  • Put themselves in the other person’s shoes
  • Do enough contingency planning to know what can be done to make things right and under what conditions to offer them.

Not surprisingly, the method incorporates elements of crisis management, customer service, effective communication, and even some psychology. And, if you do it with empathy and finesse, I’ve found that you can actually improve your relationship with the other party, rather than damage it.

Steve Tobak suggests these four Steps to help improve the process and maybe the outcome of delivering bad news

Step One: Be Genuine. Be honest with yourself about the role you personally played in the outcome. This is critical because, if you played a direct role, i.e. you screwed up, you need to be straight with yourself about that or you’ll end up feeling guilty and weird and that will come across negatively. In other words, you need to diffuse your own emotional state.

Step Two: Be Empathetic. Put yourself in the other person or people’s shoes. I really mean that; give it some time and really get in there. Try your best to understand what they stand to lose as a result of the bad news. Make sure you’re clear that, regardless of your personal role in causing the problem, you are, to the other party, responsible and accountable.

Step Three: Plan. Consider all the ways you can make the situation right. In the case of a major delivery issue to a customer, communicating a product bug, or equally significant event, that may require one or more internal pre-meetings. In any case, you need to have a clear picture of the options at your disposal and under exactly what conditions you and your company are willing to bring them to bear on the problem.

Step Four: The Delivery. Now, and only now, are you ready to deliver the bad news in real-time. If you did the first three steps right, your emotional state will be clear. That means you’ll be empathetic but not emotionally distraught, freeing your conscious mind to make clear-headed decisions in real-time. And depending on the reaction, you have an arsenal of possibilities to offer to help make things right.

Steve uses an example of when he was head of sales and had to tell a customer his company could not deliver a key component on time, resulting in a shut-down of his customer’s production line.

During the “bad news delivery” face-to-face meeting with the customer, he held a conference call with my company’s head of operations who, seemingly on the fly and under pressure from the customer, committed to an accelerated schedule that would minimize the customer’s pain.

That was a preplanned contingency to use if necessary. The result was a customer who felt that 1) I would do anything to go to bat for him, 2) my company would pull out all the stops to meet his needs, and 3) he helped to make all that happen by the way he handled the meeting. We all won and our relationship was stronger as a result.

I too could tell you many stories of tough conversations that ended on a positive and sometimes hopeful front because of the preparation steps taken.  If you follow these four steps, you’ll minimize the negative impact and, at times, even come out ahead.

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Status quo requires no leadership

Leaders are in the business of change.  After all, if everything in your organization was perfect, there would be no need for leaders because there would be no new desired destination.  You or the organization would have reached the desired destination!

This means leaders must be students of change – how to create it, how to cultivate it, how to communicate it and how to champion it.

Change is defined by one critical component – the destination you are changing towards. This destination is often called the vision.

To start, everyone must understand that simply having a vision is not enough. You must create a compelling vision. To be compelling, your vision must be:

  • Positive – something others see as desired.
  • Personal – something that will benefit others personally or directly (not just abstractly or “it seems like a good idea”).
  • Possible – a destination people can see themselves reaching.
  • Visual – something people can see.
  • Vivid – crystal clear; the clearer the picture of the future, the better.

Now that you’ve created a compelling vision of a desired future, you need to communicate that vision. There several factors that will help you successfully communicate your vision for change.

When people own the vision it is more compelling. People are always excited about a change that they conceived and created. So, rather than creating a vision of a desired future for people let them co-create it. Yes, it might not look exactly as you intended, and, yes, it might take a little more time. However, while both of those things are true, it’s also true that you will achieve more change faster. Better to go a bit slower at the beginning and accelerate later, make sense?

The easiest way to communicate benefits is to ask them. Once the vision is created, ask questions like:

  • How will this change benefit you?
  • What about this vision excites you?
  • How will achieving this vision make your life easier, or better?

You may see benefits they don’t see, and you can certainly suggest those. And, your suggestions will be more powerful and accepted if they come after you ask them for their thoughts!  But you have to start by engaging people in a conversation about a desired future state!

Once you have these factors in your favor it is infinitely easier to communicate a vision – because it is now their vision. Now your task is to help clarify and refine it – and get more excited about it. Here are a couple of ways to do that:

Remove barriers – now and in the future. As a leader, through your actions, you can be the person who helps them see the vision is reachable, or possible. Your role is to encourage and help people see the future vision through successful change.

Maintain the conversation. That is right – you have to keep having the change conversation. Your work in communicating change doesn’t end, at least not until you reach the vision. Then it starts over towards a new destination. Keep people thinking about and talking about not just the change but that beautiful desired destination.

Obviously, there is more to this, nothing as complex as change or communicating change can be described or summarized so quickly.  However, using these ideas will make a difference in how successful you will be in creating real change.  If you don’t want the status quo, so it is time to lead.

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Goal-Setting is as Easy as 1-3

Goal setting, one of those dreaded things companies do or should do once a year.   Here is a simple process Charlie Judy shares with us.

If you don\’t design your own life plan, chances are you\’ll fall into someone else\’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you…Not Much!

via Goal-Setting is as Easy as 1 3.

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Some news is better than no news

Too many companies delay communicating with employees until they have “all” the answers or have decided every last detail of a big change. Not a good approach for many reasons.

In addition to getting the rumor mill started (especially when someone is tipped off that the CEO and CFO have been in closed-door meetings all week), it excludes your employees and doesn’t treat them like the smart, educated, and rational adults they are, ok sometimes not so much. They know something is up — and it is in the best interest of the organization to make them feel like their concerns are being accounted for and listened to, even as decisions are being made.

It is simple to put together an executive communication that addresses employees’ concerns while setting expectations about what may or may not come next. Below is a system that many organizations use successfully:

  • Send out a letter/email or if you can have a quick meeting (what’s going on, why you’re getting this info, “we know you’re concerned about X, Y and Z…)
  • This is what we do know. Explain key issue (for example, “The economy is forcing us to make significant changes to the business.
  • As a result, this is what’s changing:
  • Bullet or paragraph list of changes or program impacts
  • Be specific;
  • Explain when/how employees will receive more details.
  • Bullet or paragraph list of what is TBD — to be decided;
  • Be clear about when you’ll know more/make decisions;
  • This is what we don’t know/what may happen (for example, “We don’t yet know how this will impact bonus payouts or salary increases.”). 
  • Where to go with questions (to managers, online, etc.)
  • Thank employees for dedication and patience.

For even better results, alert managers a couple of days in advance and give them talking points and a Q&A to have in-person conversations with employees. Give them, and individual employees, a way to report back and ask questions.

Directly address employee concerns and be clear and honest about what’s happening. This approach will always be more successful than silence.

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Leadership in the midst of Crisis

On January 9th, a day when people were relaxing and enjoying the weekend, millions of us were engrossed by the tragic shooting in a Tucson, Arizona shopping center.

Amongst all this horror, once again we saw heroes rising out of the chaos.  I don’t know why, but crisis and tragedy seems to bring out the best in us. We’ve seen this time and time again in crises over the years. As I hear about the actions and behaviors of those heroes, I can’t help but think we can all gain leadership insight even in the midst of crisis.

Although there were many people who stood out and made quick decisions that changed outcomes that day, one individual stood out for me.  About 30 feet away when shots rang out, Daniel Hernandez, a 20 year-old intern made a decision to run towards the shots and utilizing his previous training tended to Representative Gifford’s wounds and saved her life.  So I would say that one leadership lesson we can learn is that competence and courage transcends age and generations. In my opinion this young man has the ability to do great things, and with the right leadership and guidance he will.

Then you look at the medical team that attended to the victims.  Sure they have training, but without effective execution there could have been more casualties.   At times such as these, a leader’s job is to inspire his or her team to focus on doing their jobs as effectively as possible. During one of his interviews Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center in Tucson said the medical center was able to save lives and attend to all the victims because, “the team dealt rapidly with a mass-casualty scenario.” He praised the work of paramedics and the emergency response teams who transported Rep. Gifford’s quickly with minimal intervention. The fast response of the entire trauma team is the reason she was in the OR so quickly. So I would add In addition to setting strategy and planning, success is about calm, flawless execution.

In our everyday lives there are examples of leadership and heroism that if we really take the time to observe, become obvious.

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Your Leadership Legacy

Cover of "Your Leadership Legacy: Why Loo...

Cover via Amazon

In the book “Your Leadership Legacy” authors Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca  write about the kind of long-term impact you’ll have on your organization. Their message is that it is never too early to think about what people will think, say, or do, after your tenure as a leader has ended, as a result of having worked with you?

You might be your company’s biggest rainmaker. You might be a brilliant strategist. You might be hitting and exceeding performance goals for your unit, your division, your company – every quarter.

But if you jumped ship or disappeared today, what would you leave behind?

What would the people you’ve worked with do differently because they worked with you? What would they think about differently? Would they emulate your behaviors in any way? Or would they be saying “I’m never going to do that/be that/act that way?”

The way that people think, behave, approach work and life as a result of having worked with you – is your leadership legacy. And it has very little to do with your abilities, your measurable performance, your strategic savvy. It has everything to do with who you are, as a person, at work. It has everything to do with your natural role, (as opposed to your title and responsibilities).

The central idea is that one’s desired leadership legacy should be a catalyst for action rather than a result considered after the fact.  This book will make you think.


Definition of Success

About a million years ago, or that’s what it seems like to me now, I was interviewing for my first management position.  I prepared well, and knew I had tough competition. The interview went well, until the last question. What is your definition of success?

Well I was not prepared for this question.  It was one I had never really considered before.  As I took a minute to gather my thoughts, I explained that success to me was lying down on my pillow every night knowing that I did the very best I was capable of doing with each person and situation I encountered that day.  I told my interviewer that if I did no harm and where-ever I could help, I did, I felt successful.  After I left the interview I chastised myself about giving that answer.  I convinced myself that she was probably expecting some brilliant career goal and all I rambled on about doing the right thing.  After I had a chance to reflect on my answer, I realized this was truthfully what I believed, but, oh couldn’t I have said it a little less naïve.

She called me back the next day and not only offered me the job, but told me the reason I got the job was the honesty in which I answered her question about success.  Go figure, I went on to have a great relationship with my boss and learned a great deal from her.  Even more important, I learned that honesty is really the best policy.  The most robust form of success is that achieved as an outcome of helping someone else.  And maybe back then, I didn’t say it as eloquently as I might today, but it still feels like success.

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Don’t Fight Your Own Culture War

Executives and managers going into a new company often believe that because they are being brought into a leadership role, possibly even strongly pursued, that the company culture will bend to fit them.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

If you don’t find a way to fit in, the existing culture will reject you.  Fitting in means being willing to learn things like company lingo and acronyms; product names and roadmaps; company history; what the appropriate balance is between work and play; whether the culture is competitive or collaborative; and what kind of relationships and behavior are acceptable.

If everyone else is putting in 12-hour days but you’re not, that’s as bad as pulling all-nighters when the company softball team is playing for their league championship.

Fitting in is not rocket science, but it is crucial, because the same type of behavior that helped you succeed in one culture can get you fired or ostracized in another.  You can learn a lot about a company’s culture from reading the website, by talking to people who work there, or reading what’s been written about them in the media.

Once you’re onboard if the culture is such a far cry from where you are and you can’t seem to achieve a comfortable fit, it’s probably a good time to re-evaluate your decision.  Prolonging the wrong fit is never the answer and it can make you miserable.

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Diplomacy is essential for success

So you have assembled a great team.  They are highly effective, motivated and efficient.  As their leader you feel confident that any task this team is assigned will be completed on time, on budget, and ready to be passed along to the next department or group in the organization.

The only problem is, you have absolutely no authority or control of the other department.  You haven’t had great communication with the other department head and there has been some animosity between the groups.  You realize that all that great work you have established with your team under your own umbrella is about to be jeopardized.

You’re confident in your leadership abilities, but, diplomacy is not your strong suit.

One of the hardest tasks for any leader is to create and maintain effective relationships with peers leading other functional departments, because it requires so much emphasis on the “soft” skills of diplomacy.

Most leaders are used to being in positions of authority for most of the day, so it’s a bit unnatural and uncomfortable to affect progress and change without that authority.  My experience has shown me that utilizing soft skills and demonstrating diplomacy may be the only way to truly have it all.  So how can we maximize peer-to-peer and department-to-department relations, and maximize the company’s chances for success?

There are 5 tips that can help:

  1. Understand the impact of each area –Work tirelessly with your peers to understand the value and impact of each of your functions to the organization as a whole.  – It will pay off.
  2. Align your ultimate goals and objectives. Repeat. Then Repeat again. – Your common boss will preach this, but it’s up to you and your peers to make it work.    It’s surprising how objectives can change within departments without constant reinforcement.    For example, you’d think something as simple as “provide superior customer service” would be enough of an overarching goal to keep inter-departmental harmony, but unless it’s preached constantly between peers, things can go astray in a hurry.
  3. Use Proper Pronouns (i.e. toss “They” out of your vocabulary) – Nothing promotes disharmony more than the use of that four letter word, “They“.   It has to be about the “We”.    That’s diplomacy.   AND, leaders must ensure that teammates within their own departments realize that they are all in the same boat with their cross-departmental community, and should also toss “they” out the window.   That one-act alone will make a HUGE difference.
  4. Define your roles and territories –– All too often, because the lines of “who does what” are so blurry within an organization, a lot of “toe-stepping” occurs between different departments.  Roles and responsibilities need to be clear so everyone knows where their territories begin and end, and, even more important how it works when responsibilities cross over.