Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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The basics of good leadership

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to work with numerous senior leaders.  In trying to understand where I may be able to help them I typically ask “What are the three or four biggest challenges you’re facing in your business right now?” Even with an incredibly diverse sample of businesses, it has been interesting to see a clear pattern emerge of four specific issues that the vast majority of these leaders identify as the things that are holding their organizations back and keep them up at night.

1. Lack of a vivid and extremely well-communicated vision

Even though these leaders are passionate about the vision and direction of their company, they reluctantly admit that if you were to go just one or two levels below them in the organization, you would likely find very few, if any, employees that truly understand the vision, mission and core values of their organization. A major job of every leader, whether you lead two people or 20,000, is to relentlessly communicate an exciting and clear vision for the future of the organization. In one-on-one meetings, town halls, e-mails, voice mails, team meetings …  the goal is to help people clearly see where the business is headed and what they need to focus on to make sure you all arrive there together successfully.

2. Lack of open, honest and courageous communication

The inability or unwillingness to put difficult, uncomfortable and awkward topics on the table for candid and transparent discussion was identified by these leaders as a major inhibitor to their ability to build strong teams and get their organizations fully aligned. As Patrick Lencioni points out in his superb book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” in large part this lack of openness stems from a fundamental absence of trust that leads to unwillingness by people on the team to be vulnerable and completely honest. However, the desperate need for courageous communication and high levels of transparency is powerfully demonstrated in Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s seminal book “The Leadership Challenge,” which undeniably shows that honesty is the single most important driver in establishing credibility as a leader. Especially in times of great turmoil like we are facing now, employees crave as much information as they can get about how things are going in the company and what they need to do to keep it moving forward. Where there is a lack of a well-communicated vision mission and values, you quickly see fear, politics, rumor-mongering rushing in to fill the void.

3. Lack of accountability

As a direct result of the lack of honesty and courageous communication mentioned above, one of the difficult conversations not occurring is a frank discussion about tolerating mediocre performance. After taking a good, hard look at their business, many of the leaders I work with realize that they have a few mediocre performers in key positions in their organization and that every day they leave them there is another day they are in effect saying to the rest of the company, we were just kidding about pursuing excellence.  The truth is it is not right to let a small few jeopardize the organization and destroy their own career because their leader did not have the courage to tell them the truth about their poor performance. Here is a test will bring this into sharp focus:  Think of a person in your organization that consistently delivers sub par work, turn things in late and has a poor attitude. … Now realize that, because they still have their job, this individual is the person who establishes the level of acceptable work for every other employee in your company. How does that make you feel?

4. Lack of disciplined execution

What percentage of the time do you think companies that have a solid plan for how to succeed in the marketplace … actually effectively execute to plan? The answer has remained the same year after year: 10 to 15%. That number is shockingly low.  What is even more devastating is to realize the monumental waste of talent, resources, opportunity and money that low number represents. However, the process for ensuring effective execution is really straightforward and simple. Just a handful of key steps need to be applied with vigor and total accountability. Leaders just have to be willing and able develop a culture of disciplined execution by establishing the systems, processes and checkpoints to ensure consistent flawless execution of all critical initiatives

At the end of the day, none of the things listed here are particularly new or revolutionary. Actually, I am sure that most of us will recognize them as well-established fundamentals for leading a world-class organization. However there is a huge difference between knowing something … and living it every day in your organization.

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In Honor of Heroes

I remember when I was young and my parents or grandparents would discuss their exact activities and emotions when JFK was killed or the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I didn’t quite grasp the emotion as I understood it on this day 11 years ago at 8:46 a.m.  The shock and pain of this tragic day remains vivid in our memories.  Our world changed forever and I fear it will never be the same. When I think back now, I am humbled by the numerous heroes, the leaders who made quick decisions knowing only the facts in front of them.  Whether it was to rush the cockpit door to save the masses, go into a burning building never hesitating because they may not make it out or stopping to comfort someone who was overwhelmed.  I could go on and on.  Although a tragic day in our history, this day also serves as a day to remember that leaders and heroes are in our lives each day.   I spoke to a dear friend and colleague this morning.  She was with me on that day 11 years ago and being in charge of  the Human Resources function for our Company we were expected to stay calm and do what we had to do.  We had an office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, employees in New York City and many more on airplanes, traveling.  I’m not sure either of us really broke down until days later, but when we did it was bad.  I have two points to make today.  The first is that there is leadership inside of all of us.  Sometimes it comes when you least expect it.  When a leader is making a decision he/she can only use the facts in front of them to establish an action plan and sometimes you only have seconds.  The other point is that it’s really easy being a leader (a hero) in essence, when everything is going good.  True leaders are revealed in the way they react in times of turmoil and the unknown.

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It’s simple, why don’t they get it…Maybe it’s you.

Whenever managers talk to me about work issues, the conversation inevitably turns to employees seeming to “not listen.”   Evidence…..Work is not getting done according to plan. Work is not meeting requirements or it’s not on time, or not getting done at all. I often hear some form of the frustrated plea, “I don’t know how else to get this through to them, they just need to understand …”

Can you relate, for the sake of argument let’s presuppose that your employees are reasonably smart people and not making your life miserable on purpose. Let’s take the focus off of why they don’t get it and instead focus on what you can do to change things.

Check your assumptions. You know an assumption is going on when you find yourself thinking, “You’d think (fill in the blank),” as in:

  • You’d think they would know that’s a high priority.
  • You’d think they would realize since I asked for it, I actually need it.
  • You’d think it would be easier to ask for help than cause a delay because he didn’t know the answer.

When I find myself saying “You’d think …” it’s now a trigger for me to “think again.”

Even the best of us can get caught with this. We communicate the way we’ve always done. It mostly works, and then with one person it doesn’t. But, you’d think they would get it. I mean, everyone else has always gotten it before. There are some more assumptions: thinking all people think alike or worse, think like you.

When you get stuck and find yourself thinking, “You’d think,” ASK yourself if they really do know the priority, how much you need whatever or the impact of a delay. What could be standing in the way of that? And then …

Really check for understanding. We think we’re reasonable communicators, presumably speaking the same language. We don’t think too hard about checking for understanding. At most, it’s “Do you understand?”

If you do ask, even if your employee responds with a “yes,” you still really don’t know whether they understand, do you? He might really believe he understands. Or he might be placating you. With most people, this might be all you need to do. And yet, with one employee, you may find yourself frustrated because what ends up being delivered is not what you thought you communicated.

When thinking about what else to try, if you find yourself thinking, “I just need to get them to understand XXXXXXXXXX,” slow down for a moment. You’ve already been trying to “get them to understand.” It’s not working. Try something like this instead: “Just so we’re on the same page, what do you understand we just agreed to?”

Don’t get hung up on the wording. Do check your attitude. The point is to get their thinking out on the table so you can both see it and work with it.

If you find yourself resisting this …

Check yourself. At this point, you might find yourself thinking one of two things, “I don’t want them to think I’m a micro-manager” or “I shouldn’t have to do this for them, they should know better.”

Get over it. A huge part of your job is to facilitate people getting things done. You don’t have to be a control freak, a nursemaid or a bully about it. Challenge yourself to take your ability to lead to another level. In those situations when “doing what you’ve always done” is not working — they aren’t going to change with hoping, wishing or judging that it just shouldn’t be that way. Take their performance, and yours, to the next level by examining your own assumptions, and finding a way to advance understanding and determine how you need to make changes to your style to make it happen.