VIDEO: Replacing a Missing Star — How to Deal with Losing a High-Performer

Sometimes if you scratch beneath the surface of a good team, you might find that team performance depends upon the efforts of one or two high achievers.

That may be OK for the short term, but what happens when one or two of those stars move on?

In this video, I offer suggestions on how to encourage the entire team to rise to the challenge.

First posted on Smart Brief on 2/23/2012

Watch Out for Stress in Your People (HBR)

The man took his job very seriously. He worked hard and rose to the top ranks of his company. When hard times hit, he doubled down his effort and was appointed interim CFO. But as the pressures outside of his company grew, they seemed to affect him personally. He continued to put in long hours. His mood grew more somber, he abandoned his sense of fun, and perhaps worst of all, he felt if he quit his CFO post it would look bad for his company. His boss who liked him and respected his work told him to take some time off. The next day his wife found him dead, hanging in the basement of their suburban home.

Unfortunately this story is true, a condensation of the fine reporting conducted by James Haggerty and Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal about the death of David Kellermann, acting CFO of Freddie Mac. This tragedy becomes a footnote to the recession that has ravaged not only the careers, but the lives of so many talented employees.

What Kellermann endured is not so unusual on the surface; most senior leaders feel tremendous pressure to succeed, in good times but especially in bad times. The survivors learn to cope; some never do, especially those who have experienced a high degree of success throughout their lives and may lack the resilience skills honed by previous setbacks.

So it falls to management to keep a watchful eye on its employees. No manager should play therapist, but he or she can be trained to watch for the warning signs of extreme stress and depression. The manager can urge the individual to seek help. I’m an executive coach (not a licensed clinician), but here are three stress factors that affect high-achievers and bear watching:

Doing more by working more. When your company is experiencing hardship, it is natural to want to do more to save it. But soon enough you hit the law of diminishing returns. When you log seven day weeks month after month, not only do you cheat yourself of rest and your family of your time, you rob yourself of the opportunity to re-energize, re-group, and re-think what you are doing. You get locked into a trap of diminishing returns.

Losing sense of self. Work is hard. Right now, it’s probably harder than usual. But always we must try to keep it in perspective. If the work causes you to lose your personality, become withdrawn, and lose the sense of who you are, it is not worth it. Your performance suffers and so too do the people who work with you. You need to take a break.

Conflating job with corporate survival. All of us like to think we are important. That’s healthy. But when we think we’re indispensable, or worse, that our job affects the fate of the entire company, then we are crossing into a kind of twilight zone of unreal expectations. Even if you have a high-stakes job, you need to divorce what you do from who you are.

Many of us work long hours, internalize tension, and may feel that we are responsible for everyone else. But when these stress factors interfere with our work and personal lives, we owe it to ourselves to talk to others and consider seeking professional help. Seeking clinical help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and profound self-awareness, something all leaders must exhibit.

What we can learn from the Kellermann tragedy is to be more vigilant. Thankfully, most people undertaking high stress jobs do not break down; some actually thrive under the pressure. But no one can handle everything, all the time. Managers need to be proactive, and in times of severe stress, know when to pull people off the line — at least until the stressed individual can seek professional help and find healthy ways to cope with the pressure.

For more on depression, its symptoms and its treatments, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional information on as well as local resources for depression treatment can be found by visiting the National Network of Depression Centers.

First posted on 5/07/2009

VIDEO: Leadership Brand Is More than a Buzzword

It does matter what people think of your leadership.

Reputation is essential to getting things done. Because leaders accomplish little by themselves, they need to bring together others for common purpose. How others perceive a leader is important to encouraging a following.

In this video, I offer ideas on how to develop your leadership brand in ways that resonate with your authority and authenticity.

First posted on Smart Brief on 2/17/2102

Four Ways Leaders Can Stay On Top of the Issues (HBR)

“So, if you’re sitting up in your office somewhere, how did people think you or others would know? When we didn’t know.”

That’s former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaking at a conference on the state of professional sports hosted by the Wall Street Journal explaining why he and major league baseball owners were ignorant about steroids that altered the competitive balance of the game for more than a decade. While Mr. Selig and others may have been wrong about performance enhancement drugs, he is dead right about one thing: if you stay in your office, you won’t know anything!

Leaders owe it to their organizations to be on top of issues. They do this by being present and available to their people wherever and whenever they are needed. That begins by leaders mastering the issues not just through briefing books but by getting out into the field and talking to people. Here are four ways to do it.

Study up. Know the issues facing your company. In most instances this is pretty easy for most senior leaders because they are huddled in meetings or drowned in briefing books. Their challenge then becomes one of sifting through the tsunami of information and putting it into an intelligible construct that will enable them to frame issues, ask questions, and make decisions.

Listen up. Once you know the background, clarity will come from visiting with key stakeholders, including customers and employees. Customers will tell you in an instant how well, even better how poorly, your product or service is performing for them. Employees, too, when granted permission will talk about what they see and hear. And if they feel safe they may even venture a few suggestions.

Inspect up. Here’s a technique that Franklin Roosevelt used. As an assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, he personally inspected ships and ship building facilities. He loved it. After he was crippled by polio, he was not physically able to make the inspections. So, as governor of New York and later president, he asked wife Eleanor to do so. FDR pushed her, as he had himself, to go past the pro forma handshaking to look behind the façade. For Eleanor, it meant visiting factories, inspecting kitchens, and checking living quarters of workers. For managers, it may mean visiting factory floors, talking to customers, and personally using products.

Follow up. There is no use doing your homework if you will not hold people accountable. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, was a master at following up on details, getting answers from aides, civil servants and generals to questions he had asked them previously. It is important to act on that information to make certain people follow through on initiatives to which they have committed. Hold yourself and the team accountable for results.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” wrote novelist John Le Carre. Le Carre (pen name of David Cornwell) was referring to international espionage, but his comment is equally valid for any senior leader. It is important to make the effort to know your people and their issues so that you are aware of what is going on. You cannot know everything, but a leader must know much about important things all of the time.

First posted on 5.11.2009