Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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Taking Responsibility

It’s inevitable, all leaders make bad decisions sometimes.  It doesn’t matter how much information you gather and what your advisers may suggest you do, you call the shot and its a bad one.  My biggest issue is not the bad decision, it’s the leader that doesn’t own up to his/her mistake.  They somehow try to justify or worse substantiate their bad decision.  When they do, they lose the respect of the masses. There is an old saying “Two wrongs don’t make a Right”.

Employees value a leader who can stick to his guns, yes. But self-justification and blind faith in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary can quickly push those leaders over the line into arrogance. As much as leaders worry about appearing strong and resolute, it is much more likely that they will err in the direction of looking delusional in their consistency. If you’ve crossed this line then you are at serious risk of losing all credibility and there is only one way to get it back: Admit you were wrong.

While admitting our mistakes may sound simple, our psychological wiring works against us. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, the cognitive dissonance theory states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes abnormal behavior.  In other words, our minds actively seek out confirming evidence to support our decisions and self-image. For most people, this confirmation bias is so strong that we often end up convincing ourselves of things that sound outrageous to more objective observers. What this means from a practical standpoint is that since you were the one who made the decision, your employees never reach your level of commitment. Therefore if the decision was wrong, your employees will almost always see the folly of your ways before you will. If the gap between when they see it and when you see it is too long, you will lose their faith and confidence.

Since confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are hard-wired into our minds, there isn’t much you can do about it except be aware that it exists. If you are aware of it, you can at least guard against it, invite alternative ideas and open yourself to accepting change when your current direction isn’t working. Have you been blinded by your resolve? Is it time to change? If you’re ready to admit you’ve made a mistake, then do it without excuses. It is so rare for leaders to accept responsibility without pointing to extenuating circumstances that when they do, it is greeted with amazement and praise. While consistency is an important leadership trait, the ability to admit mistakes and accept full responsibility far outweighs the appearance of resolve.

Unfortunately, deflecting attention away from our mistakes is so ingrained into our culture — both American culture and corporate culture — that getting people to fess up to their mistakes is no easy task. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, who explore cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in-depth in their book Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me, explain that because American culture rewards results without recognizing effort, we have been conditioned to view mistakes as purely negative. A mistake equals a failure to produce results and therefore mistakes cannot be tolerated. By ignoring the trial and error process required to achieve success, we encourage people to stay on the wrong course long after that course has shown itself to be flawed. As a leader, changing your culture to one that accepts mistakes will not only make it easier for people to admit their errors and change course when necessary, but it will foster a more open atmosphere of candor and feedback.

Whether from fear or from the confirmation bias, most managers are terrified that admitting their mistakes will show they are weak or stupid; because of this fear they will choose resolve even in the face of obvious failure. Ironically, this type of blind devotion to flawed strategies will make them look far worse than simply accepting responsibility, speaking with candor and showing the strength to change. The risk of looking foolish is miniscule compared to the goodwill earned from standing up and doing the right thing. Nobody likes a quitter, but at some point leaders need to know when to throw in the towel and stop throwing good money after bad.


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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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Coaching for Personality Preferance

Not everyone is motivated by the same thing or in the same way. Personality preferences influence both the coach and the person being coached. For the coach, certain approaches and methods will come more naturally, depending on their personality. For example, if the coach is generally outgoing, he or she may be likely to expect the person being coached to be able to talk things through in the moment. Enough time may not be allotted for some who is introspective and needs to think about things. Conversely, if the coach has a preference for introversion, he or she may expect the person being coached to find great value in thinking through things ahead of time, rather than talking things out.

You can’t necessarily fulfill everyone’s wishes, but it’s crucial to understand what makes them tick.

I’m not saying either approach is wrong. It’s just a simple example of a complex topic.  A coach needs to be able to recognize his or her own personality preference as just that – a preference. And, the coach needs to approach each coaching situation with curiosity– to discover the style preferences of the person being coached – before determining the coaching methodology.  It means, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. It recognizes that you have to take yourself out of the situation and look at it as if you’re viewing other people playing your role. You have to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes and really empathize with them. But it’s also just as important to see yourself as others see you. If you can do that, it gives you a 360-degree view, and then you have more understanding. It doesn’t make a hard job easier, but it gives you a framework.


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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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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.

 


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Are you the leader you think you are?

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight Eisenhower

So you’ve been extremely successful for a while now.  Do you ever think luck had something to do with it, since your leadership style wasn’t.  Let me explain.  I worked with and executive who we’ll call Tom who at the age of 36, (20 years ago) was pursuing his career with a vengeance. It was all about him – about making a name for himself, being recognized, and making an impact. He had the highest standards of performance for himself and his team.

They were in fact very successful. More successful than any of them had imagined would be possible, given where they started and the barriers they faced. Everyone on the team was smart, dedicated, hardworking, and committed to the common goals. Tom was proud of himself and his team.

He decided to go into an intense leadership development program where he took a battery of personality tests and a leadership 360 where he solicited feedback from peers, direct reports, his boss and his clients. Upon receiving the feedback, he was pleased – that is until he saw the results from his boss. On a scale from minus 10 to plus ten, he rated Tom in the minus range on a large number of people-related behaviors. Tom was convinced he had just made a mistake – these results couldn’t be right.

He asked for a meeting with his boss and during the meeting Tom pulled out his feedback report, proudly showing him the ratings from his peers, clients and direct reports. And then Tom showed him his ratings, asking him why he had given him such low scores.  He was shocked by what he heard:

His boss said “Tom, you have amazing skill, drive and talent and you have been extremely successful. We are all grateful for what you have been able to accomplish. But to get that success, you are beating up your team. You make them feel like they are never good enough. You constantly look for someone to blame when things don’t go right and never put blame on yourself.  You intimidate them into working long, grueling hours – and they are afraid to tell you any of this for fear of your reaction.”

Tom was stunned, but he still held out hope that his boss had it all wrong. However, he bravely decided to speak with him team members one-on-one.  He asked them to be truthful and assured them there would be no reprisal.  After talking to his team, they confirmed what his boss had told him was true. Tom was crushed as he thought he was a great compassionate leader.

The feedback came as an affront to his own identity and his conception of himself as generous, caring, and nurturing leader.  He was, quite simply, embarrassed. Tom told his team members he was ashamed by his behavior. He then pledged to change his approach.  So with the help of his boss and his team’s coaching and support, he began to work on creating positive, rather than negative relationships with each person on his team. Part of it was purely personal, so he could feel good about myself again. The second reason was performance-related: leaders who form positive relationships enable higher levels of collective performance.

Talking with his boss and his team members about the situation was the first step in a long journey to turn his negative, overly critical style into a leadership approach that would continue to pursue the highest standards of performance – without beating his team up.

How did it turn out……I’ll let you know next time.