Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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Serious Kindness

The best advice I can give to a new manager is to be kind and caring and make the world a better place for your employees. This does not mean that you should be a pushover or a patsy. You still need to get your work done, be a star performer, etc. but serious kindness gets you serious results.

It’s not always easy to be kind. It’s hard when you have to tell people with no talent for what they are doing that they are in the wrong field or when you have to terminate someone and tell them this will help them find what they are good at. Equally hard is when you have to tell a person who has lots of talent and skill that their co-workers really don’t like them because of their communication style, sarcasm, negativity, oh and let’s not forget “body odor” and that if they don’t improve (correct) they may not succeed in their role.  This is difficult news to pass on, and managers who don’t care ignore the problem or shuffle the person off to a new, unsuspecting manager. A kind boss helps a person find a new path, and sometimes that means termination.

Many times in my role I have to help people see why their current job is not a good fit for them. As a manager, you are a counselor, helping people to see their highest potential be it with you or at another type of position or another type of company.

As a manager you are in a position to make peoples’ lives better. You can give them more interesting work, better coaching, more flexibility, as well as other things that you have always wanted in a job, and you should do that.

But, don’t go overboard. The company comes first. And your job is to be the best for your company. Which is everyone’s job. You get an opportunity to manage people because you are going to make things better for the company. The company wants happy workers, but not at the expense of effective workers.

So here’s another piece of advice for new managers: Success is about balance. A good manager balances the needs of his/her company and the needs of his/her employees, and after that, a good manager uses his/her power over peoples’ lives to make the world a better place.

The cynics of the world will say, “That’s not realistic. I never got that.” But don’t ask yourself if you ever got that. Ask yourself if you ever gave it. It is possible to go through your life doing good deeds and just trusting that they’ll come back to you, in some way. Management is the power to make a difference. Do that, without wondering what you’ll get in return.


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One of the hardest things for leaders (and all people, for that matter) to deal with is criticism. We all want to be right, do right and have others consistently agree with and admire us. But every leader who has been around for even a short while knows that criticism is part and parcel of the experience. There is simply no way of avoiding it.

Consider all of history’s greatest leaders. Regardless of their era and role, every person that we would associate with positively changing the course of history was censured during his or her lifetime, often in scathing, relentless terms. It makes no difference whether they were people of great character or not. Nor did it matter if they were on the winning side of the argument or struggle. If they stood for a cause, led a nation or advanced a noteworthy agenda, then they were at times discouraged, condemned and perhaps even physically impeded from achieving their goals and aspirations.

If fact, why would anyone want to assume a leadership position when the potential for constant critique and pushback looms large? Why would anyone want to risk affecting their relationships with friends, colleagues, co-workers and other associates in order to assume a leadership post?

The answer, of course, is that leaders want to make a difference. They recognize that change is not easy for people and that any efforts that demand of others will invariably draw criticism. But they push forward anyway as they deem appropriate, knowing that criticism is simply society’s way of saying that what you’re doing matters and deserves attention.

Of course, there are many things that leaders could and should do to gain support and buy-in, such as building equity, developing a values system, and communicating (and listening) well. Still, there is no leader worth his or her weight in salt that can expect to adequately fulfill their responsibilities without experiencing meaningful criticism and backlash at times.  Change initiatives are in many ways similar. They can be painful at present, affecting staffing levels, roles, reporting, workloads, work processes or similar things. But often these changes are necessary to ensure the long-term health of the organization.  Sure, leaders need to account for what they do, how they do it, and the impact that it may have on their constituents. But they must also possess the courage and drive to advance change that they believe is proper and necessary. The backlash that they will invariably receive is not necessarily the result of anything bad that they did. Quite the contrary — it may, in fact, be the best indicator that they are on the right path and are doing what is necessary to genuinely fulfill their leadership duties.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” ~ Winston S. Churchill


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As companies grow, they may outgrow some key employees

So you have an employee or a few employees who have been with you for a long time. He or she has proven to be a great performer over the years. You’ve probably built significant rapport and loyalty with this person or person’s. Unfortunately employees don’t always grow with entrepreneurial companies.  This is one of the hardest lessons to learn as an entrepreneur or new executive.

As companies grow, they tend to outgrow some of their employees. That’s not surprising: it’s hard for fast-growing organizations to provide enough time and development for employees to keep up with ever evolving needs of the organization.

I’ve seen many examples of owners, entrepreneur’s, CEOs starting small businesses or division with 3 to 5 people. One or two people outshines everyone with their commitment, knowledge and execution.  The owner begins trusting an individual because they know the person can be relied upon to get things done.  And typically their strengths are very different from the owner’s core strengths, so the value to the owner is tremendous in growing the business.

As the business begins to grow, however, a different reality sets in.  Expanding into a company with 20, then 30, and then 40 employees may require a different skill set.  The company may need a different type of leader.  The employee who’s great with your 20, 30, or 40-employee Company will not necessarily be the person to run and operate a business with 300 employees.

Often, I think we can recognize this in our gut, but because of the loyalty we’ve built up, we have a hard time determining and actually deciding to take action.  We let the issue fester, then it only gets worse.

The best way to deal with this situation is by addressing it head-on.

As soon as you notice the issue, or have a gut feeling that you might have one, address it with the employee.  Talk with them about how roles change rapidly in a growing company and ask them how they are feeling about how they are keeping up.

You may find the conversation alone heads off the issue.  Perhaps the person simply hasn’t realized that what is required of them has changed.  This will call it out to them.

Perhaps they are truly struggling and don’t know how to deal with the issue themselves.  This will open up the dialogue necessary to help them get past it.

Perhaps they believe they can make the jump.  This will give you the opportunity to discuss expectations and put them squarely on the table.

In most cases, employees who are struggling with this issue are more uncomfortable than you are.  Putting the possibility on the table (in the right way) communicates your respect for them as a person and gives them the opportunity to dispel the myth or be part of the solution.

Discuss alternatives.

After your initial conversation, your hunch should be either quickly dispelled or rapidly confirmed.  Once it is confirmed, it’s time to discuss alternatives.  If the individual recognizes the issue, discuss alternatives.

Perhaps the role has grown large enough that it should be split into two.  Perhaps there is a new role that is more aligned with their skill-set.

Because you have addressed the issue proactively, you do not have a performance issue.  Instead, you have an organizational optimization issue.  Work together to overcome it.

Part ways, respectfully.

Unfortunately, in many cases an employee is unable to recognize that the company has grown beyond their capabilities in a certain role.  Still others recognize it but are unwilling to embrace change.  They want to hold on to the role that they feel is rightfully theirs.

In both of these situations, it is important that you part ways, respectfully.

I have found over and over again that dragging this process out is painful and detrimental to both the individual and the employee.  It is most often a relief to both your organization and the employee if you take swift action.  When you do, remember, this was your go-to employee.  Take care of them.  Offer them a nice package and celebrate their success as they move on to their next challenge.


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Leadership Trait Often Overlooked

In succession planning the biggest question a committees asks is “who’s next?”  It’s a question that senior executives should consider with regularity. Amid the debate about who can succeed as a VP of sales or even who will become the next C-suite officer, one factor sometimes gets overlooked: Toughness!

I am not referring to what’s on the outside (gruff and ready), but rather what is inside the individual (character and resilience).

Toughness matters because you need a leader who has the wherewithal to stand up for what she/he believes in, as well as stand up to others to achieve team and organizational goals. More important, toughness matters when things are not going well, when the economy’s tanking, when the industry is struggling, or a brand-new competitor’s appeared on the horizon. Toughness also matters when heads are being counted and everyone is wondering if the next head to roll may be theirs. Tough times demand tough leadership. Some of the ways leaders demonstrate toughness:

They defuse tension. Performing under pressure is a prerequisite for leadership, but too much pressure can be a prescription for disaster. It falls to the leader to maintain the sense of urgency and momentum but also to give people some breathing room. This is not an excuse to slack off; it is an invitation to be careful and deliberate. Also, keep in mind that tension that comes from interpersonal conflicts is seldom positive; leaders need to eradicate it by making some hard decisions about who works with whom and why.

They get up off the floor. There’s no shame in getting knocked down; sports teaches that lesson very well. What matters is what you do next. Strategies will miss the mark; wrong skills will be applied; and projects will fail. Such is life in the organization. It’s a leader’s job to get back into the game and keep slogging. That requires resilience, an ability to flex with adversity as well as persevere when the going gets rough.

They let off some steam. If you are a team leader, and someone on your team makes a big mistake, one that he was obviously warned about, it’s natural to become annoyed. It is also acceptable to focus some heat on the person who made a mistake. The challenge is to focus your irritation on the action, not the person. He needs to know your displeasure; it may help him pay more attention the next time.

There is another aspect of toughness that sometimes seldom appears in a discussion of the topic. Humility. A leader who can admit he was mistaken is a leader who has the right kind of inner toughness. Owning up to failure is not a weakness; it’s a measure of strength. First, it demonstrates a willingness to accept consequences. Second, it demonstrates humanness; human beings make mistakes. It also creates opportunity to move forward. Rolling over in despair is not what leaders do; they acknowledge their misstep, learn from it and resolve to move forward. Toughness gives backbone to a leader’s purpose, and gives one the strength to continue.

 


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Comparing Leadership to Driving – Interesting

I read an article a few days ago comparing leadership to driving.  As I read the article it began to make some sense.  In leadership you start out with a need, a purpose, or a mission.  Well in driving you also need purpose or mission.  You need to go to the store, work, or to visit friends.  Sometimes you’ve got to catch a flight or be at an appointment right on time.  If you pull out of your driveway with no sense of purpose, odds are you’re going to get lost and frustrated on your drive.

Leading your team is no different.  When you take on the mantle of leadership, you need to understand your purpose for doing so.  Are you there to improve a broken team?  To take a group of high performers to the next level?  Do you need to grow the business?  Stabilize it?  Sell it?  Are you leading a downsizing?  If you’re not clear on your purpose as a leader, you’ll be just as frustrated as you would be driving around town not knowing where you’re going.

Second, your vehicle must be prepared to drive.  You need gas, air in your tires, wiper fluid, and all your mechanical and electrical systems need to be in working order.

Are you personally prepared to lead?  Are you taking care of yourself physically?  Mentally?  Do you have all the resources your team needs to be successful (budget, time, tools, etc.)?  Your job as a leader is to ensure your team is ready to tackle the challenges it faces each day.

So what kind of driver (leader) are you?

There are all kinds of drivers out there.  Which one do you most closely resemble as a leader?

The shortsighted rusher: You know this guy – the one who zooms past you only to get held up by cars that were clearly slowed up in his lane.  And then another opening appears, he zooms off, and again you cruise past him at the same speed you were doing before.

Do you lead like this?  Chasing after the nearest opportunity to improve but not seeing the bigger picture of where things are headed?  It feels like you make a lot of progress at times but you never seem to get ahead.  If this is you, try some patience and take a longer view of things.  Observe what’s going on around you and try to thing two, three, or four moves ahead so you don’t burn so much energy and get so little reward.

The overconfident (reckless) speeder: ZOOM! This guy blows by you like you’re standing still.  He cuts across three lanes at a time cutting through traffic with apparent ease and nerves of steel.  He’s getting where he’s going and he’s doing it fast.  No one is going to catch him – except the cops.  He doesn’t see the chaos he leaving behind until it’s too late.

Leaders like this guy push themselves and their teams at an incredible pace.  They never seem to let up.  Invariably though, they anger others around them because they’re taking so many risks or just making other people look bad because it’s all about them.  At some point, the team will crash or the authorities (senior management) will pull this guy over and fix his behavior.  If you’re pushing too fast and getting feedback that you’re too selfish or focused on your own advancement, take your foot off the accelerator.

The slow and steady: This guy is the “perfect” driver.  Obeys all posted signs.  Never goes above the speed limit.  He actually resents others who break the rules and sometimes even tries to enforce the rules on his own (like doing 65 MPH in the left lane so faster cars can’t break the speed limit).  Sure, he’ll get there eventually but it’s uninspiring and somewhat stifling.

Do you always follow the rules?  Do you tell on others when they break the rules?  Are you more focused on the rules than the results?  If so, you might want to check your team’s morale.  I’d venture to guess they’re not having much fun and might be looking for another ride.  I’m not saying to break the rules – just question them.  Sure there are ones that must be obeyed but others are more guidelines than anything else and part of a leader’s job is to take risks.

The road rager: Screaming and obscene gestures are a way of life for this guy.  No matter what anyone around him does, it’s wrong and it gets him bent out of shape.  He screams and curses and cuts off other people without regard for their safety (let alone their feelings).

If people aren’t hanging out with you and if the staff cowers in fear when you walk down the hall, you might be the office equivalent of the road rager.  People aren’t following you – they’re complying out of fear.  If you find you yell (at all), get red-faced with anger, and that people generally shy away from you, you might consider some anger management strategies because in today’s workplace, road rage leadership is rarely tolerated for long.

So do any of these driver types resemble your leadership style?  Be honest with yourself and ask how you can improve your driving (leadership) style so you get to your destination quickly, safely, and do so in a way that everyone enjoys the ride.

 


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Corporate Vision – Does your team need one?

The only things more painful to read than most corporate mission statements are corporate vision statements.  Many vision statements are written by committee.  They start out direct, clear and compelling but as everyone involved has their turn at contributing their input those visions lose their luster.  The direct parts of the vision get watered down as not to offend, exclude or intimidate people.  Also, things are added to the vision because people want to ensure that their pet function or goal is included in the vision statement and this lengthens the document and makes it more confusing.

Eventually some vision statements come to look more like a bill that has moved through Congress, where everyone involved has tacked on their personal amendment, than they do a compelling articulation of what the organization will be in the future.

Before you go skipping forward with the defense that you do not write vision statements at the corporate level, you must realize you are responsible for setting direction for your team.  You as a leader must create a vision statement for your team when your team is large enough to warrant having one.  Any team that is responsible for a discrete organizational function should have a vision.  It doesn’t matter if that team is as small as five people or as large as five thousand.  You can write a powerful vision statement as long as all members of that team are focused on delivering the same goals in the same functional area.

Whatever your situation or your title happens to be, the simple fact remains – you need to articulate a vision for the future state of your organization or team.  We usually leave this up to the C-suite but writing a vision statement at any level is a powerful exercise.  Your people want to be excited to come to work.  They want to be part of something bigger than they are.  If you can paint a compelling future picture for them, they will be more excited to follow you to that destination.  If you do not paint that picture, they are likely following you out of laziness or just morbid curiosity to see what is going to happen.  The earlier in your career you learn how to create vision statements the more successful you will be at writing them as your responsibilities expand.

Writing a vision statement requires a great deal of thought and an ability to step outside of your daily grind and into a time beyond the foreseeable future.  When you write it you need to make it concise and it must clearly explain how your organization creates value.  This value creation component is easier to articulate than you might think.  Ask yourself “what will the business outcomes and results be if I achieve this component of my vision?”  Your vision should include several key phrases and you should be able to link each phrase to a desired business outcome.

To create your vision, look five years into the future and ask yourself what your organization should look like.  Using a five-year planning window will generally help you balance between being achievable but not too ambiguous.  This is because it is a short enough time frame for you and your team to have a measurable impact and feel like you have made progress, but it is far enough in the future that you can be aspirational in how you describe that vision without protests of “we’ll never achieve that goal in that short an amount of time!”  Conversely, visions set beyond five years into the future can lead your team to feel like the world will change so much over that period that the vision will be neither achievable nor relevant.

Below are some thought starters to assist you with tackling this big question. Do your best to answer as many of them as you can even if at first glance the question does not apply.

– How big will your organization be?  How will you define its scope?
– What new skills will your team members have?
– What new capabilities will you build over this time period?
– How will the way you work with other groups change?
– What should your customers, both internal and external, expect from you?
– What will set your team apart and distinguish it when it is compared to other teams?
– What is your future vision for your team?
– Will they be excited by it?
– What aspects of it will they find inspiring?

Once you have drafted a preliminary set of answers to these questions look at all the answers as pieces of a bigger puzzle.  Create the most powerful elements into the simplest statement you can.  Write down the statement that captures what your team is all about.  That is your first rough draft of a vision.  As you evaluate the resulting vision ask yourself:

– Is my vision clear on how my organization creates value?
– Is the vision ambitious but realistically possible?
– Is the vision worth pursuing and does it win people’s commitment?
– Does the vision explain how we differentiate ourselves from competitors?
– Is the vision concise and does it consist of only a few critical words?

How does the first draft of your vision stack up against these questions?  If you are not happy with your vision relative to these questions, continue to revise it until you are.

 


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Developing Others is Your Job

Nobody has told you that you need to spend time and effort developing others in your organization. It’s not part of your job description. You have too many other things to pay attention to, and besides, isn’t developing leaders the job of human resources?

If you are an organizational leader and this is how you think about developing others, you might want to rethink your position. Put simply, it’s your job. It should be one of the most important things you do, and for the best leaders (meaning those leaders who understand the importance of people to their organization), it is a pleasure to assist and watch others grow and develop.

There are lots of reasons to spend time developing leaders in your organization. Some of the most important reasons include:

Tapping potential: There is leadership potential in all of your employees that is lying fallow, just waiting to be set free by you. As you think about the upcoming Olympics, consider how many of those athletes had a coach or mentor who tapped into their unused potential to guide them to becoming world-class. The ability to become the best at their sport was there all along; it just needed someone to help it along. Look for those who are eager to be more, willing to work hard to become world-class leaders, and guide them to reach (or exceed) the potential within.

Performance: The best leaders know that their organizations can become so much more than they are currently; they see the future and they know that when everyone leads, organizational performance increases and innovation, creativity and output improve. Developing leaders makes possibility become reality, and studies have shown that investments in developing leaders can help the bottom line.

Talent attraction: It’s so much easier to recruit and hire when people actually want to work for your organization. Developing leaders attracts talent, period. When you become known as a leader who is willing to spend the time developing other leaders, high potential employees will beat a path to your door, because they want what you have to offer.

Culture of leadership: Imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like for your organization to have a culture of leadership: employees at all levels taking responsibility, accountable to the vision and mission, collaborating and leading to the future. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? It’s not an impossible dream. I’ve been privileged to know a few organizations with a culture of leadership, and in every instance there is a leader at the top who places emphasis on developing leaders.

Sustainability: I don’t mean to be too ominous, but if you get hit by a bus tomorrow – or, more likely, left the organization — who will step into your place? I can’t think of a better reason to develop leaders in your organization. You have an obligation to make sure that others are ready to take your spot.

Legacy: What better legacy to leave behind when you move on than the memory of yourself as a person who grew and stretched others? The managers I’ve worked with who believed in me enough to mentor, coach and stretch me to go beyond what I thought I was capable of are the ones I remember fondly, use as examples, and write about. They left a positive emotional legacy for those whom they invested time and effort in helping become the best leaders they could.

Regardless of whether it’s part of your job description, developing others is something you need to spend time and effort doing. So coach and mentor them, give them stretch assignments and allow them to take risks and sometimes fail. Your leadership and your organization can reach great heights when you put the effort and time into developing leaders.