Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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Leadership Primer

There are so many theories and philosophies of what makes a great leader. I have written about it for several years now. I’ve also had the opportunity to listen to and talk to many leaders about their challenges and frustrations, as well as their secrets of success.

One leader that has always stood out in my mind is Gen. Colin Powell, and I am always impressed by the confidence he maintains in his leadership views. When asked about the essence of leadership he has said, “Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off.” Really blunt, but so true.

I actually keep a presentation which is called General Powell’s “Leadership Primer,” in which he offers 18 leadership lessons. I won’t go into all of them but the first one on the list is “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

Powell’s point is insightful and profound. Too many of us in leadership positions are too concerned with wanting people to like us and the decisions we make. That is simply not always possible nor preferable.

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.

Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.

Powell is right. The irony is that when we don’t make the tough choices as leaders because we want to be “nice” to everyone all the time or treat them “equally,” regardless of their performance, we guarantee mediocrity. The fact is, being a great leader requires that sometimes you will make decisions that make people on your team angry. You will have to communicate directly without mincing words that someone’s performance is under par.

Here’s an example: “Steve, we need to talk specifically about how you are not getting the job done and we need to come up with a plan to turn it around quickly. If not, it isn’t going to be good for you or for our team.”

When you communicate with Steve in such a fashion, he is not going to walk out of your office singing your praises. In fact, there is a good chance he goes into his office and text or calls his wife to tell her what a jerk you are.

But what would happen if you, as a leader, didn’t have that conversation with Steve, knowing that his performance had been sub par for so long? What if you chose to communicate by doing nothing and just hoping things got better? Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.

I’m not advocating that you “piss people off” just for the sake of it because you should or you can. That’s just arrogant and contentious. However, “pissing people off” goes with the territory if you are the kind of leader that deals directly and honestly with your people and the situations that must be confronted on a daily basis. The alternative is unacceptable and the outcome of such a passive approach will be much worse for you and for your team.

 


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Dangers of an Overinflated Ego

Leaders by nature tend to have high ego strength. Ego can aid in self-confidence and perseverance and both can be tremendous aids to leadership success. But there is a down-side to high ego-strength that leaders sometimes don’t recognize until it’s too late.
Effective leaders keep their ego in check regularly to ensure that they can lead and influence successfully.
Leaders who allow their egos to get out of control are not admired, respected, nor trusted by many. Over the years of interfacing with many leaders and teams I have seen egos get in the way of effective leadership. I have also seen previously effective leaders fail when their egos become much bigger than their other leadership capabilities.

The two main ego barriers that prevent leaders from leading successfully are:

1. An inability to be introspective

A leader with an out of control ego lacks the ability to really see their flaws or opportunities that exist in each of us to grow. This weakness results in really bad behaviors – from blaming others for their performance or mistakes, attacking and defensive tactics and a complete lack of reality.

2. An over inflated perception of self-worth

Leaders who have an over inflated perception that they are better than anyone else have lost perspective. This behavior really stems from a complete lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Unfortunately leaders who suffer from this are either in denial or believe they really can pull this off – which they can’t.

Sometimes it takes just one event to force you to check your ego and recognize your vulnerability. If you’re truly checking your ego this event can humble you instantly and you have a great opportunity to turn things around and become the great leader you can be. But sometimes, unfortunately the ego has been so overinflated for so long, there is no ego check. The energy that could be used to regroup and move forward is spent on blaming others or self-justifying.

So, if you’re reading this make sure to check your ego at the door.


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Leadership vs. Power

It is hard to deny the connection between leadership and power. Depending on your experience and perspective, one or more likely came to mind when you read those two words together. Leaders have and can create power, and they can do it in a variety of ways.

And yet power and leadership are unlikely companions.  Because depending on your feelings about power, and the type of power you are thinking about, you could have very different feelings about the leadership that is attached to that power. While the connections are many and the chance for commentary is vast, I want to highlight two ideas and contrast them.

I want you to reflect on what I am about to share and decide for yourself where that leaves you and what your next steps might be.  The time you spend reflecting on these ideas, and the actions you take might be the most important thing you could do as a leader right now.

Power Grabbed

When leaders think of their role as a noun, as a role or a title, they are often seduced into thinking that because of their leadership role, there is power available for the taking.

The best case scenario of this mind-set is one of a leader with good intention. This leader values the goals and mission of the team and because of their belief, wants others to see the value and be believers also. They feel that the most expedient way to move towards that valuable mission is by leading from their position, being highly directive and expecting others to follow because it makes sense.

I don’t need to give you the worst case scenario, you’ve already formed it in your head.

Whatever the intention, the result is an approach of trying to grab or gain power, and while this has its place (think a crisis situation), in the long-term the power grab results in compliance at best.  Followers by compliance will be less engaged and most easily willing to change their path and go in a different direction when the opportunity arises.

Power Granted

There is a different model of power that some leaders share. It is the idea that leadership isn’t a noun, but rather a verb, and that people follow not because of the role we play, but the way we play the role. Since people are more likely to willingly follow people that they know, like and trust, this leads to a different type of power – let’s call it power granted.

Power gained through belief, relationship, trust and confidence given leads to leadership by choice, not by compliance, and has a much better chance of lasting over the long haul.  This approach may seem more passive and less of a guarantee. After all if, I move people through compliance I seem to have more control, don’t I?

While it may seem that way, it is an illusion.  When power is granted, people are following because they want to, they have chosen to do so. In the end this power will be longer lasting and more valuable than any power ever grabbed or sought.

Now What?

As leaders we have a huge responsibility to help our teams achieve worthy, important and meaningful goals. Power is inherent in that responsibility. The question for today is which type of power are you striving for and achieving, and is it the type you want and need to reach those valuable goals?

If there is a mismatch between what you have and what you want, it’s time for you to get to work and make adjustments. Your team and your goals are worth the effort.

 


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Leadership Development – Company Differentiator

One of the biggest differentiators of companies that excel in leadership development is the commitment and ownership of the CEO or top executive.  It’s easy for a CEO to just pay lip service to leadership development. All they need to do is show up at the annual talent review and nod their heads; stop by a few training programs to give a quick talk, approve the training budget, and read the script written for them by HR that tells them to say, “People are our more important assets” at every employee gathering.

You can tell what’s really important to them by taking a look at their calendar to see where they spend their time, the agenda items on their executive team meetings, and by what gets measured.

So when it comes to leadership development, what’s the difference between a CEO that is just “involved” and one that is really committed?

I for one think the following 7 things would give any CEO the best return on their time invested. The good news is that none of these involve spending much money, and you may already be doing many of them:

Focus on results and don’t let the process be the tail wagging the dog.

I’ve seen way too many organizations get caught up in the process and lose sight of the results. They create complicated processes and forms, thick binders, have long meetings, and put way too much importance on impressing their board of directors. Once the meeting is over, the binder gets set aside and nothing happens until the next year. VPs and senior managers soon catch on that it’s nothing but an exercise and focus on looking good instead of being good.  This doesn’t mean the annual CEO and board reviews are not important — it’s been my experience that if you don’t do this, then nothing happens. Events, like annual check-ups, force things to happen that otherwise get pushed aside because they are not urgent.

Have high expectations for the head of HR.

The CEO’s HR partner not only needs to know all of the best practices and processes, but they must have the ability to influence and be trusted by the executive team as well as be the CEO’s trusted adviser on talent. It’s a tough balance — they may be coaching a struggling VP one day and recommending to the CEO the same VP be replaced the next day. They have to be able to play match-maker and broker job changes, and manage all of the ego and politics involved.

Practice what you preach.

Committed CEOs publicly work on their own leadership development, then work on the development of their executive team. They coach them, give them feedback, and develop individual development plans with them. They support their development. A CEO’s behaviors are powerful — they set the expectations for the rest of the management team, creating a trickle-down effect of leadership development.

Be the Chief Talent Broker

While there are challenges to cross-functional movement of high potentials, somehow the companies best at leadership development figure out how to do it without damaging the business and ruining careers. They intentionally move their high potentials from job to job to get them ready for bigger jobs.

If it’s left up to each manager, it won’t happen. Why should they? It’s certainly not in their best interests to give up their best talent. The CEO is the only one (other than the HR vice president) looking at leadership development from a what’s best for the company, long-range perspective. Managers won’t do it — or even see value in it — unless the CEO establishes it as an expectation and encourages them to give up their top talent and be willing to accept (and develop) unlikely developmental candidates.

Spend time assessing talent.

Assessing talent is all about having regular talent reviews, conducting formal assessments, and spending time with high-potentials. Know what to look for, too — indicators of success in larger roles isn’t the same as performance in a current role. Astute CEOs know how to ask the questions, what behaviors to look for, and the difference between performance (results) and leadership potential.

Hold others accountable for assessing and developing future leaders.

All too often companies will conduct talent reviews and succession plan reviews and discuss development and then, a year later, nothing happens. A CEO needs to establish the vision, set meaningful goals, measure them, and hold people accountable. It takes time to change a culture, but a few public coronations and hangings help send the message that it’s important.

Take decisive action on underperformers

Entrenched underperformers block the development and advancement of an organization’s high potentials.  Leaders don’t always do a good job differentiating excellent performance for mediocre performance (everybody’s a B or A, and nobody’s a C), and they are too slow to take action.


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Start-up CEO vs. Expansion CEO

Most company founders embark on a start-up journey with aspirations to see the company through to greatness while maintaining the role of the CEO.  However, the role of startup CEO and expansion-stage CEO differ greatly.  They require completely different skill sets, and it’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills.  A majority of founders end up recruiting replacements to take over the companies they created.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is a common reality that accompanies the shift from searching for a business model to executing and scaling it effectively.

A founding CEO must be tactical, hands-on, gets stuff done, where a professional manager CEO focuses on the vision/strategy, building a senior team, and guiding the senior team to execution.

Navigating a company through the expansion stage takes operational expertise. You have to know how to recruit senior managers who have specific functional expertise, and you must be able to establish an operating rhythm that gets your growing team working toward the right goals. As your company transitions to the next stage, you must transition with it, and as you do you are faced with three paths.

1) Adapt to the New Reality

If you are dead set on remaining CEO, then you need to pick up the new skills needed to address the blind spots and manage your company’s expansion. That means you have to augment those skills that got you where you are now: your audacity to do something new, your passion to inspire others to take risks, and the tenacity to create and disrupt markets. In addition, you need to focus on managing through others (this one can be the biggest challenge) and developing a rhythm for your team.

It’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills, and it’s even less likely that you can pick them up as you go. So, consider whether you’d hire yourself to run your company now that you are expanding — chances are, the honest answer is no.

2) Assemble a Skilled Team

Another option is to surround yourself with an executive team that brings the growth-stage experience and expertise your company needs.  For most companies entering the expansion stage, a sales and marketing-focused COO is the right choice.  However, if you need more cover on overall operations, financial forecasting, and legal matters, then a CFO makes sense.

When it comes down to it, companies aren’t run by highly effective individuals; they’re run by highly effective teams. Most successful CEO’s will tell you to surround yourself with the best people possible who are experts in the areas you are weak in.  This will allow you to focus on your strengths.

3) Transition into a New Role

The majority of start-up CEOs recruit their replacements as the company grows beyond $15 million in revenue. It’s that simple, and it’s usually the right choice. Work with your board to bring on a new CEO and transition into a new role. Don’t let your ego drive an emotional reaction. Put the company first, just as you always have, and you will come to the conclusion that it’s the right decision.


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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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Focus Your Leadership

Successful business relies upon the ability of the organization to have a strong purpose.  That fact has never really changed regardless of economic or other unforeseen circumstances.

I find that some leaders tend to want to find someone to “blame” for their challenges.  If you’re looking for some concise tips to focus your leadership, here are eight from the wisdom of the late Peter Drucker:

1. Make sure that what makes a difference gets done.

2. Check your performance against previously defined goals.

3. Say no to things that don’t contribute to the real mission.

4. Know early when to stop trying doing something that can’t be done.

5. Organize travel and leverage new technology if it’s possible.

6. Have a maximum of two organizational goals at the same time.

7. Make sure the people around you understand your priorities.

8. Build on your strengths. Find strong people to do the other necessary tasks.

To fully digest the expanded wisdom of Peter Drucker, pick up a copy of The Essential Drucker or any of his books. If you are a practicing manager you’ll find them crisp, to the point, and genuinely useful.