VIDEO: Influencing People Where They Work

Visiting with employees in their work space is a good habit that not only shows respect but also allows the leader the opportunity to get an up close and personal look at how the work is going.

At the same time, a leader’s time is valuable; she must ration it carefully so here are some suggestions for when to visit a subordinate. So here are four reasons to do it:

  1. To clear the air. People who work together have disagreements. While it often falls to subordinates to try and smooth things over, when the boss makes the first move and goes to the employee to do it, it conveys a sense of “we’re all in this together.”
  2. To ensure clarity. Some issues require face to face interaction as a means of checking for understanding. The boss’s actual presence may encourage good dialogue that allows each party to ask questions.
  3. To deliver bad news. No one ever likes to give bad news, so when a boss makes a point of going to the employee directly on his turf to give him unpleasant news about a project cancellation, a budget cut or a headcount reduction, it communicates that the cares about the people on his team.
  4. To celebrate. Visits from the boss need not be reserved for tough times; good times are an occasion for celebration. When a boss visits the team at their workplace to congratulate them for a job well done, it’s a good thing. Employees remember it.

First posted on Smart Brief on 6.24.2016

Managing Big Egos (HBR)

Can you have a team comprised of too many smart people?

“Sometimes too many geniuses is a problem,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking in early February on PBS’s Charlie Rose. Brooks noted that some of the difficulties that the Obama administration was having initially on his economic and foreign policy teams was caused by the proliferation of so many smart people. While Brooks alluded to “brains,” he was not simply speaking about intelligence, but also about strong-willed people. These are folks who are more inclined to believe in the strength of their own ideas rather than the ideas of colleagues.

Every successful coach knows that a team of stars is not a team unless some of those stars are willing to channel their formidable talents to team rather than individual excellence. The Four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs are a prime example of superstars merging ego and talent toward championships rather than individual stardom. Their coach, Greg Popovich, has been masterful in getting stars and role players to meld as one team in the quest for NBA titles.

A manager boasting such a collection of talented people is fortunate indeed, but unless she finds a way to bring her team together around common goals, the team will be ineffectual.

We don’t come across as we think we do — and we’re not as good judges of others as we assume, either.

To that end, here are some suggestions:

Set big goals. Nothing motivates talent like a big goal. Talented people love nothing better than tackling big problems. The more difficult the obstacle, the more engaged they become. Therefore, put the goal before the team. Ask them how to solve it. And then challenge them to do it. Big goals are common in design, engineering and research sectors; innovation fuels their drive.

Rub egos together. Smart people like being around other smart people. They especially enjoy proving how much smarter they are than the others. So use this ego to the team’s advantage. Competition for scarce resources like funding and manpower will keep people on their toes. Treat everyone fairly — but not necessarily equally. That is, the more one achieves, the more recognition he will receive.

Keep team goals first. Work to ensure that rivalries are achievement-oriented, not personal. Bruised egos are fine; hurt feelings are not. Make certain that everyone continues to feel part of the team.

Sometimes you need to invite a star to leave, however. Not because she is a malcontent or because she is causing trouble but because she needs to move on for the good of the organization as well as herself.

Such talents may need to move into management, where they can learn to build and sustain their own teams. Or they may be destined for senior management and need to spend time early in their careers as staff assistants to senior leaders. The military routinely assigns promising junior and mid-level officers to work as aides to senior command officers. Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus — to name three — all benefitted from working in this system. Powell also served as a military attaché to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger during the Reagan Administration.

Getting a team to work together may be more art than science. And having a team of especially talented people may be a manager’s gift — but unless she can harness the individuals to work collectively, it’s a wasted gift. The individuals may remain like uncut diamonds, rough and unpolished, rather than glittering as jewels in a singular crown.

First posted in HBR.org on 2.19.2009

VIDEO: Vision, Mission and Values

Sometimes we can be too clever and in the process lose sight of what it is we are trying to achieve.

Such is the case with vision, mission and values statements. Every organization needs to have them, but in trying to craft them, we sometimes overshoot the mark and end up writing something that sounds to good to be true.

Toward that end, here are three ways to define them.

  • Vision is where you want to go. Vision is an act of becoming. It is intended to be aspirational.
  • Mission is what you do to get there. Mission is the work that your organization performs.
  • Values are what hold you together. Your values are your belief system. They define organizational purpose as well as individual conduct.

Vision. Mission. Values. Three words that can help keep people focused on what needs doing as well as mindful of how they do it.

First posted on Smart Brief on 7.8.2016

Put Positivity to Work (HBR)

A colleague of mine was talking about the challenge of getting employees to look on the bright side — or as he put it viewing the “glass as half-full rather than as half-empty.” Encouraging employees in good times can be tricky because employees sense you are seeking to manipulate them. But in bad times it is downright daunting. The signs of economic decline are pervasive. With revenues dropping, companies closing, and employment numbers rising, it is hard to convey any sense of optimism. Doing so can make a manager seem foolish rather than well-intentioned.

Yet getting employees to focus on the positive is essential. Positivism is an orientation toward what you can do rather than what you cannot do. In management, positivism is more than attitude; it is initiative. For example, a front-line employee cannot control corporate cash flow, but can control the effort she puts into her job. This sense of control stimulates more positive feelings because the individual can influence outcomes. So how can a manager encourage feelings of positivism? Here are three ways:

Never sugarcoat reality. Employees know things are bad. If you seek to hold back information they will assume the worst, not the better. The company “grapevine” thrives on rumors, especially bad ones. Talk frankly about the business and emphasize an employee’s role as a contributor. I use that word deliberately. Address employees as contributors, not as costs.

Challenge people. Now is a wonderful time to re-think the business. Invite employees to come up with ideas for improvements. Give them the authority to turn good ideas into action steps. Slow economies provide time to reflect on ways to re-engineer processes and products. Pull out the proverbial plans for what you would do if you had more time and resources. Ask your team to see how they might implement them; you have the time, perhaps you can find the resources.

Look ahead. The downturn will not last forever. This is the time to think about who is capable of leading the organization. Simon Callow, the managing director of Personnel Decisions International (UK), said organizations “must focus on leaders who can guide them through these turbulent times.” Such leadership is not reserved for those in the C-suite. It will fall to the men and women who demonstrate by virtue of their ideas and their actions that they can help their companies survive, and even thrive, now.

Cold, hard reality reminds us that thinking positively will not save a business, or an employee’s job. Plenty of well-intentioned, hard-working and optimistically minded individuals have lost their jobs in the automotive, financial services and pharmaceutical sectors through no fault of their own. But even in good times, this can be the case — an employee’s company can always be sold or downsized for reasons beyond his personal control.

Dwelling on the negatives is a spiral to nowhere; it leads to nihilism. Encouraging employees to focus on the positives is an act of leadership. It shows a faith in individuals as well as a faith in the organization. “Think positively and masterfully, with confidence and faith,” urged World War I ace and aviation entrepreneur, Eddie Rickenbacker, “and life becomes more secure, more fraught with action, richer in experience and achievement.” That is an attitude worth maintaining and nurturing especially when times are so severe.

First posted on HBR.org on 3/02/2009