VIDEO: Humility Works for Leaders

Leaders who value humility are the ones other people want to follow.

Humility is not something taught in business schools, but it may be one of the most powerful attributes a leader can utilize. But leaders who do not readily accept it may not always be to blame.

Humble leaders are those who others not only want to follow but enjoy following because of strong leadership as well as strong humanity.

First posted on Smart Brief on 3/01/2013

Do You Really Know What Your Employees Think? (HBR)

The Pew Research’s News Interest Index for a week in Julyconcluded that people surveyed were actually more interested in stories about Michael Jackson’s death, as well as the economy and health care reform, than news media’s coverage provided.

With the glut of coverage and cries of overkill for these stories, this is a surprising revelation. The lesson for leaders? If you want to know what people are thinking, don’t rely on second-hand reports from others. Ask employees yourself and listen to what they have to say. Political campaigns are particularly expert in this area when they test market messages and conduct tracking polls. By measuring impact and understanding, they are able to shape and re-shape their messages for greater impact. (Some may call this pandering; others may regard it as responsiveness.)

Corporate leaders do not need to hire pollsters but they do need to be more cognizant of the impact of their messages. Most managers are very good at giving messages; following up with repeated iterations is more of a challenge, but a greater challenge is often gauging the effect of the message. We see this most evidently during organizational transformation efforts. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm expended in getting the word out about the “big change” but relatively little follow up in terms of listening and evaluating impact. To address this, consider these suggestions when crafting your next communication plan.

Walk the halls. Make yourself visible to your team by spending time in their work areas. Be approachable so people can engage you in conversation. Be prepared to begin conversations about new product launches, service improvements, or efficiency initiatives. Ask people how these things are working for them.

Listen to feedback. Give them time to respond. Ask follow-up questions related to their experiences so you get beyond the seventh-grader’s answer to how are things at school — fine! When you hear such responses, people may be too timid to voice an honest answer. Be conversational to encourage folks to share more information.

Report on feedback. Let your colleagues know what you are hearing and what it means. For example, if you are discovering that customers hate the service upgrade, report on it. Likewise if employees are enthusiastic about an initiative, you can be heartened, but stay tuned for further updates. Many initiatives are well received, only to die later from lack of support.

Report on revisions. If you make a major change, or even a minor one, communicate it. Also, do more follow up to see how it is working. This is especially critical when there is initial resistance. Few things are more powerful than a senior executive saying, “we heard you and we are making changes.” That gives a leader instant credibility, as long as there is appropriate follow through.

Conduct a communications audit. Corporate leaders do not need to conduct tracking polls but communication audits around what people are thinking, feeling, and doing related to company initiatives can be useful. Such audits can be done quickly and cost effectively online. Again, report the results to everyone so you keep the organization up to date.

There is an additional point about the prevailing news coverage that is relevant to communicating in tough times. While economic news is generally bleak right now, there are periodic bits of good news, “green shoots” as pundits are fond of calling them. If those green shoots are related to your business, make certain you make a point of linking that good news to what your team does. Do not assume people will figure it out; connect the dots for them. For example, if you are in the alternative energy field, talk up federal funding as well as an uptick in consumer awareness and corporate demand.

Leaders need to keep their fingers on the pulses of their organizations. Many executives fear being blindsided by what they do not know — like lack of capability, resources, manpower and talent that will affect business growth. Those executives who spend time out and about with their people have few such fears. They know the score and as a result, can steer their organizations with a greater sense of awareness.

First posted on 7/22/2009


Hire People Who Disagree with You (HBR)

Emma Sky is a British pacificist dedicated to getting the U.S. out of Iraq. In 2007 she also became a key aide to General Ray Ordierno, the operational commander of U.S. forces. “People always thought we were funny,” she tells Thomas Ricks in his book, The Gamble, “this huge man (Ordierno is 6’5) and this tiny British woman who went everywhere with him.” Sky represented a civilian sensibility and voiced oppositional views that she felt senior officers needed to hear. Ordierno once referred to Sky has “my insurgent.”

Credit Ordierno, as Ricks does, for realizing that he needed someone who could be “his opposite” (Sky’s words). In this instance, Ordierno was following the example of his boss, General David Petraeus, who surrounded himself with an assortment of military and civilian aides. This “brain trust,” as Ricks calls it, would provide him with the different perspectives so vital to running a counter-insurgency operation.

Leaders who solicit opinions from people who disagree with them are smart enough to realize that they do not have all the answers. Such leaders also must make it safe for others to disagree; otherwise the exercise is moot. Here are some things to consider when hiring for difference.

Look for character. From a leadership position, character is the willingness to do what is right for the team. Every team needs people who will stand up for their ideas. That requires backbone. Integrity and virtue are also essential, but what matters is not what you are, it is what you do . Character is leadership put to good purpose.

Look for strength of ideas. It is not enough to disagree; executives need alternate viewpoints that are based on facts as well as reason. Good ideas that are contrary to the boss’s ideas must be carefully thought-out, supported by data, and argued from a viewpoint of doing what is best for stakeholders.

Look for ambition. When bringing on someone who disagrees with you, or at least is not afraid to do so, make sure they have an ambition to move up in the organization. They aren’t just contrarian; they want to make a positive difference, and they’re in it for the long haul.

Look at their track record. I have yet to see a recruitment advertisement that says, “Wanted: People to Disagree with Boss.” So look for managers who have shepherded projects to positive ends when the odds were against them. For example, if they achieved something in the face of new competition, diminished resources, or even organizational change, these are indicators of an ability to think and act for themselves.

Hiring someone who is opposed to your ideas is not the same as hiring someone who is opposed to you. The former is a good thing; the latter is a threat. The latter will disrupt the team in order to achieve his personal ambitions at your expense. Such a person will cause more grief than glory — so keep him on a short leash or ask him to find work elsewhere. In any organization, the designated leader must have the final say in strategic decisions, otherwise the organization loses focus and direction.

Having a strong oppositional voice is the mark of good leadership. Rather than a sign of weakness, it demonstrates force of character and the ability to think and act strategically. More importantly, oppositional views can clarify the leader’s own thinking, sometimes changing his mind, other times sharpening a course of action.

And while ultimately, the leader still has to make the final call, encouraging others to voice opposing views enables the organization to be more adaptable and more agile — and will help you make better decisions as a leader.

First posted on 7/27/2009

VIDEO: Building Trust in Your Managers

Do you trust the people who report to you?

That question is not just about right versus wrong. It’s also about competence versus incompetence. Sometimes managers let things slide because they “trust” their employees will perform.

Trust is a bond between individuals or between teams and their supervisors. It can never be expected, nor imposed. It is earned through example and reinforced through success as well as recognition.

First posted on SmartBrief on 3/29/2013

How to Manage Your High-Performing Team (HBR)

The fire chief is clearly displeased. He angrily upbraids his firefighting team for disregarding his direct order to evacuate a building that was on the verge of exploding. The firemen had their reasons for doing what they did, but in overriding direct orders they put themselves and their unit in added danger. Notably as the chief is chastising the team, he makes it clear that he considers the unit to be among the very best at what it does.

This scene is from Rescue Me, the long-running drama series created by and starring Denis Leary. While the particulars are fictional, the behavior of the chief and the firefighters should be a lesson to anyone in management. Highly performing teams, especially those that have worked together for a while, often abide by their own rules. On the one hand, it is a secret to their effectiveness; on the other hand, when teams ignore directives from their management, it can spell trouble.

Managers of such teams are blessed with effective productivity, but cursed with dealing with attitudes that lead to teams doing whatthey want to do when they want to do it. This makes for good drama in a television series, but causes rifts that can fracture organizational effectiveness. The challenge for the manager is to insist on discipline as well as underscore respect for the team’s abilities and accomplishments. Here are some suggestions for mining the team’s effectiveness but maintaining organizational unity.

Pay tribute. Recognize the team for what it has achieved. Make certain individuals on the team know how much you respect them and their work. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome. Talk up their accomplishments to higher ups. In short, make the team feel special. Compensation should reflect how well the organization regards the team’s contributions.

Instill values. Critical to team success is cohesiveness, pulling together for the greater good. The same applies to teams within the organization. Make it clear that no team is above the company. At the same time, respect the fact that individual members will have greater allegiance to their team members than to members of other teams. A savvy boss will find ways to leverage the team’s cohesion to benefit the entire organization by putting the team into positions where its success will reflect well on the entire organization.

Adhere to policy. High-performing teams like to do things their own way. This is a key reason for their success. Allow the team, as you would individuals, to figure out things for itself and execute its ideas in its own way. However, make it clear that whatever the team does must be done on time and on budget. Above all, hold the team accountable for both good and not-so good results.

Finally, strike a balance between creativity and discipline. You want to challenge the team to think and act creatively because its ability to do things differently contributes to its success. At the same time, its creativity must be in service to organizational strategies and objectives. That is, the team can “freelance” methods but not objectives. Projects it undertakes must complement the organization’s mission.

Let’s face facts. When push comes to shove, a highly productive team should be given the latitude it needs to achieve. Treating this team as a first among equals is appropriate. All teams need to be treated fairly but those that do more than most deserve special treatment. So often it is the collective triumphs of high-performing teams that enable the whole organization to succeed.

Bottom line, a savvy manager will give a highly productive team plenty of room to succeed. Experienced managers learn the boundaries so they can keep all of their teams, not simply the high achievers, on a path that maintains individual team pride and benefits the entire organization.

First posted on on 8/03/2009