Ask Three Questions to Clarify Expectations (HBR)

Leave it to a comedian to invert perceptions of the leader-follower dynamic.

In 2009 Jon Stewart asked chief White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee “Is [the President] going to impeach us?” After all, Stewart mused, might the unpopularity of the President’s health care reform be due to people’s failure to follow rather than the President’s ability to lead? While Stewart, as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, was being funny, there is truth in his comments about the leader-follower relationship; both sides have roles to play.

Leaders must work hard to explain their initiatives and create conditions for people to succeed when they implement them. But equally so, followers need to work to fulfill their responsibilities to the organization that pays them. While the majority of employees do pull their weight, we all have seen examples of employees simply clocking time.

While such behavior is never acceptable, it is even less acceptable when times are trying, as they are now. So leaders need to exert their management skills to engage employees and set clear expectations. Here are three questions managers can ask to ensure that employees follow through on their responsibilities.

1. Do people know what is expected of them? Too often we assume people know their jobs. People may know the specifics, but often lack knowledge about how what they do helps the entire organization. For example, if an employee works in accounting, she needs to know how vital her job is to the efficacy of the company. Her attentiveness, as well as that of her colleagues, is essential to the company’s ability to profit. People need to be told, and reminded, of the importance of their work.

2. Do employees know what they can expect from you? It is important to let employees know that you as their manager are available to them. How you define “available” may vary from employee to employee. For new hires, you might be more teacher than boss. For veterans, you will play the coaching role. For the team, you will be the supplier of resources as well as their champion.

3. Do employees know what is expected of each other? While managers need to make certain employees are doing what is asked of them, employees must also do their part to coordinate with each other. Whether a self-managed team makes its own assignments or a manager makes the assignments, what matters most is that employees know who does what so work can be completed in a timely and responsible fashion.

Pushing for employee responsibility is not an excuse for roughshod management. If managers expect their employees to be accountable, then they must set the right example. These leaders need to handle tough issues, volunteer for tough assignments, and go the extra mile to help the organization succeed.

First posted on 8/18/2009


VIDEO: 5 Questions on Character

Character is essential to leadership and so educators and executives alike are wise to focus on it.

Recently I came across a definition of “leadership skills” offered by Jeff Nelson of the One Goal organization, which works with disadvantaged youth in Chicago.

Nelson believes that kids need to learn are “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.” These traits are important because they are inherent to a leader’s character.

First posted on Smart Brief 7/05/2013

Why Leaders Should Lighten Up (HBR)

With the economy in a coma, a pervasive unease has settled on businesses. Executives worry about the state of the company; employees fret about losing their jobs. What’s a leader to do?

Lighten up!

Work, especially when the stakes are so high, is serious enough that a manager shouldn’t add to the tension by over-managing or going around with a sour puss. It is up to the leader to inspire hope and confidence and one way to do it is by spreading some good cheer. Here are a few things to try.

Relax your mood. There is nothing a manager can do about the tanking economy, but he can do something about how he reacts to it. Grim-faced expressions do not make people want to work harder, but a frequent smile and a friendly nod can do something about the way they feel about their work.

Create laughs. World War I British troops living in trenches amused themselves by staging lighthearted theatrical productions. It was a taste of home and a reminder that as bad as things can get, we all need to laugh, if only to remind ourselves that we’re human. So find ways to lighten the mood. Spring for lunch, order cake for the break room, pass out movie tickets or DVD rental coupons, or post cartoons on the billboard. Doing these things reminds people that all work and no play makes for dull living.

Keep your door open. Let people know that you are available to chat. Most often people will come by to discuss work, but there will be times when conversation about life in general is more appropriate. This is not slack time; it’s human time. Be available when people just want to talk about things, even about the fate of the company. Be honest and open. You cannot guarantee lifetime employment, but you can promise straight talk.

There is precedence for levity. Abraham Lincoln kept his cabinet and his generals loose by telling stories that would amuse but were also instructive. Case in point. When associates sought to poison the reputation of U.S. Grant by calling him a drunkard, Lincoln famously quipped, “Send whatever Grant is drinking to the rest of my generals.” Grant was winning; the other Union generals were not.

Franklin Roosevelt held regular happy hours in the White House, even during the darkest days of the Depression and the Second World War. It was a time to kick back, gossip, and share some laughs.

No one would call Lincoln or Roosevelt inattentive to their situations; both men knew how to find a moment of distance from reality as a means of refreshing themselves and their aides.

Few would argue for excessive levity — that’s foolhardiness. A manager needs to keep the team focused on the priorities at hand, but she can do it while being professional about the work and appropriately lighthearted with the people who do it, including herself.

First posted on 8/21/2009

VIDEO: Before You Start Making Changes…

Change is part of organizational life — inevitable, unsettling and necessary.

Too often when managers are pushed to improve, they make changes without taking stock of the situation and their talent. So, before you embark upon a change process, learn to ask yourself and your team five critical questions.

Knowing what you are now, coupled with the fortitude to push for positive change, is what leaders today need to succeed in our turbulent times.

First posted on SmartBrief on 7/19/2013

Don Hewitt: Why Leaders Need Stories (HBR)

“Even the people who wrote the Bible were smart enough to know, ‘tell them a story.’ The issue was evil in the world, the story was Noah…. Now the Bible knew that and for some reason or another I latched on to that.”

That was Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of one of the longest running show in U.S. television history, 60 Minutesexplaining the “secret” of his success. According to Steve Croft, a 60 Minutes correspondent, Hewitt did not concern himself with issues per se; he focused on stories shaped by those issues, be it war, consumer fraud, health investigations, or celebrity profiles.

Hewitt, who died this month at the age of 86, was fond of saying that every child realizes the importance of “tell me a story” — but when we reach adulthood, we forget. Yet Hewitt’s absolute commitment to story is something leaders, particularly those with big initiatives to push, should remember. Story is a form of person-to-person connection that leaders, as fellow contributor Stew Friedman writes, can use to connect with their followers.

There are three reasons why a good story can be a useful leadership tool:

To inform. We all want the facts, but if a leader wants the facts to matter he needs to add a little seasoning. Stories can take raw data and give it life. For example, why not use a spreadsheet to tell a story about rising sales, or declining quality? Use the data to make your points. Then, flesh out that explanation with stories about the effect on individuals, teams and the company as a whole.

To involve. If you need to get people on your side, you need to involve them in the process. You need to engage their interest. For example, if an executive needs to persuade people to support an initiative, she can describe how the initiative will benefit the customer but also emphasize how it will improve the lot of employees, too. (More customers, more sales, more revenues, more jobs, more opportunities for promotion, etc.)

To inspire. Employees become jaded; there is only so much “importance” they can absorb, even when their jobs are at stake. So it falls to leaders to find ways to inspire their teams. Stories are the ideal vehicle for inspiring people because successful ones can dramatize the human condition. A story about a customer service representative who drove to the house of a customer to rectify an error, or a sales person who drove through a raging blizzard to close a sale, can quickly become the stuff of corporate legend. These stories give sustenance in times of travail, and say to an employee faced with long odds, “If he can do it, so can I.”

There is another advantage to using stories, and that’s something that Hewitt alluded to with his reference to the Bible. Use stories to make your points rather than relying on platitudes. In fiction writing workshops, they call this “Show, don’t tell.” For executives, this means you have to avoid corporate speak; instead, tell stories about how your initiatives will improve the lives of customers and employees.

Not every issue need be reduced to a story. There are times when a leader needs to be direct and to the point, to lay out the issue and the challenges in clear and precise language. For example, if a company is losing market share to a competitor, the sales manager might want to quantify the decline in sales by percentage and by lost revenue. Yet even in such circumstances, that same executive could drive the message home by naming the lost customers and describing the effect of their loss on the company.

A leader picks the right story at the right time to drive her point home, leaving no doubt about the importance of an initiative and its impact on the organization. It’s up to a leader to use stories to dramatize urgency and humanize events — so that listeners become followers.

First posted on 8/24/2009