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 HBR.org 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 HBR.org 5.11.2009

What You Can Learn from Small Town Auto Dealers (HBR)

(Although this post was written nearly a decade ago, its lessons remain relevant.)

Until recently, one of the less-reported aspects of the crisis in the automotive industry is the effect that its radical downsizing is having on auto dealers. Now that General Motors and Chrysler have axed roughly 1,100 and 800 dealers respectively, stories of dealerships closing are front page news. While cuts have come largely at the expense of urban dealers, some smaller rural stores are surviving — at least for now.

Many of these smaller dealerships are family enterprises; three and even four generations old. Their longevity is a testament less to Detroit’s products and more to their smart and sharp business practices. And now that some of their competitors are closing they may do even better. Let’s consider what business leaders can learn from these small-town auto dealers.

Know your customers. Small-town auto dealers know what vehicles their customers prefer. This comes from having long-lasting ties to individual families, selling new cars and trucks to grandparents and parents, and putting the children into affordably priced used cars. Part of knowing your customers means considering their changing tastes. Decades ago many of smaller dealers signed franchise agreements with Asian and European manufacturers like Honda, Nissan, Toyota and VW to provide their customers with even more makes and models from which to choose.

Service matters. Dealers will tell you they make more servicing cars than selling them. Manufacturers pay for warranty repairs but good dealers, particularly those in small towns, will keep their customers returning after the warranty expires because they provide reliable servicing. They also have a reputation for honesty, a word that is not often associated with automotive retailing. Local dealers have no alternative to treating their customers right; they live in the community, and word gets around.

Invest in the community. In many areas, car dealers are the soft touch for youth sports teams as well as school musicals and church raffles. True, it is good visibility to have your store’s name on scores of soccer uniforms and and church bulletins, but something more is at work. Car dealers are part of the life of these towns; their philanthropy supports causes and activities that add texture to the community.

Maximize opportunity. Dealers are entrepreneurs. Those who are not closed will get aggressive. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, surviving dealers will buy up inventory at a good price, add salespeople (some from former competitors), and expand their sales reach. One Dodge dealer in Jackson, Michigan — right in the heart of “downturn valley” — said, “I’m going to buy every car I can find with every dollar I have until I run out of money.” While that attitude may have led investment bankers to run Wall Street into the ground, hearing it from a dealer sounds more optimistic. He has faith in himself, his business, and his community.

Not every dealer is worthy of imitation. Just as there are poor businessmen in every field, there are less-than-reliable automotive retailers, especially ones who cheated their customers, not to mention their own employees. But these smaller, successful dealerships can teach us a lesson or two that may help us grow our own businesses.

As a youngster I recall the dealer showroom windows that were papered over every September in anticipation of the sparkling new models that would soon be introduced. I still remember drooling along with my chums at the brand-new 1963 Corvette parked at the corner of Carl Schmidt’s Chevrolet in Perrysburg, Ohio. We ran our fingers over the radical new lines of the first Stingray. No salesman shooed us away; our ogling and awing was a kind of third-party endorsement.

Maybe that’s another lesson; let the kids touch the merchandise and one day, he’ll tell his friends about you.

First posted on HBR.org on 5.18.2009

Crisis Raises Issues for Executive Coaches (HBR)

Note: While this post was written nearly a decade ago, the research cited remains relevant today.

1999 was the year of me! 2009 may be the year of us!

At least that is what we may infer from a new survey of seventy executive coaches conducted by WJM Associates, an executive coaching firm located in New York City. As the survey states, “the change [in coaching priorities] seems to reflect the trend of executive coaching being used by organizations to address specific business issues, rather than for individual, general ‘self-improvement’.”

This makes good business sense. 1999 was a good year. It was a time of the new economy when e commerce was transforming the way people and business interact and operate. Top five coaching objectives 1999 were for “self-awareness, personal goal setting, work/life balance, stress management [and] improve quality of life.” 2009 is a very different. We are mired in the deepest economic downturn since World War II. Analyzing today’s coaching priorities which are specifically requested by client and their employers gives us a handle on how businesses are coping with the huge upheaval.

Build/Align/Motivate Team. Organizations need executives who know how to get people to follow their lead, especially in challenging times. It takes a leader who knows how to assemble the right people and put them in the right places so they can do the right work. Motivating them comes from providing them with the right resources and right opportunities. This is not always easy when resources are scarce so the leader needs to be seen as doing what she can to help her team succeed.

Executive presence. Leaders need to demonstrate their earned authority. Presence is the manifestation of earned authority that comes from knowing how to do things as well as having earned the respect of others. Another critical aspect of presence is composure. Leaders need to keep it together when everything else around them is falling apart. Leaders demonstrate their mettle during crisis.

Effective communications. If you want to lead others, connect with them. Yes, it is imperative to articulate the message, the goal, and the outcome. But you also need to invest yourself. That comes from listening to others as well as allowing others to give you honest feedback. Learning from what you listen is critical to moving the organization forward. Use the down time to learn more about the capabilities of your people.

Interpersonal savvy. As Harvard author and psychologist, Daniel Goleman, has taught us, leaders must be able to get along with others. The ability to relate to others as a fellow human being is essential to gaining buy in for a leadership objective. Sure you can tell people what to do, but if you do not earn their trust you will get compliance, not commitment. Being everyone’s pal is not necessary, but treating others with respect is essential gaining trust, an attribute that is essential to holding teams together in trying times.

Strategic thinking. So often we coaches hear the need for managers to think and act more strategically. A reason more managers do not do so is because their bosses keep them occupied with tactics so they do not have time to think let alone act strategically. Therefore, senior leaders must give their direct reports room to breathe, reflect and consider alternatives that will affect not just a department but also the enterprise. Now is a great time to map out new strategies that may help your company find ways to make the best of bad times.

Of these five, only “executive presence” is focused on the individual; the other four are focus on relationships with others or in the case of “strategic thinking” what executives can do for the business. That said, we cannot forget the individual, as my friend and fellow Harvard blogger, Stew Friedman, demonstrates with approach to Total Leadership, individuals must be tuned into their inner selves and satisfy those specific needs if they are to be truly effective, especially over the long term.

Executive coaches are business professionals; like all consultants who succeed they have learned to adapt to changing business conditions and respond to evolving developmental needs. And that may be a hidden benefit of the executive coaching process. Since most coaches work for a number of different businesses, good ones have experience working not only with different executives, but different cultures and disciplines. That provides coaches with a long view of how organizations respond to change and how those changes affect employees. That insight, over and above the coaching process helps individual executives gain perspective that they can apply to help their organizations manage tough times as well as good ones.

First posted on HBR.org on 5.21.2009

VIDEO: How to Lead When Everyone’s Watching

Savvy leaders know that everyone in their organization is watching them.

So what can leaders do to lead in the age when social media is not only ubiquitous but also perceived to be more credible than mainstream media?

In this video, I offer some suggestions for leaders who need to manage their time in the spotlight.

First posted on SmartBrief on 7/21/2012

Troubleshoot Your Way to Recovery (HBR)

One summer Akio Toyoda disappeared from public view. In reality Toyoda, a member of the company’s founding family, was very much in view if you were looking on the asphalt of a dealership in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As Michelle Maynard writes in the New York Times, Toyoda, who will become company’s new president this June, was on his hands and knees inspecting the undercarriage of the new Toyota Tundra.

Unlike most of Toyota’s product line, the full-size pick up was plagued with problems that forced Toyota to issue recall notices. As Maynard notes, what Toyoda was practicing was a time-honored tradition in the Toyota Production System, called “genchi genbutsu,” translated as “go to the spot.” That is, find out where the trouble is through first-hand observation.

Genchi genbutsu, or trouble shooting, is a practice prescribed in “lean thinking” — an approach to productivity that marries two complementary concepts: improvement and learning. The part of lean that involves trouble-shooting is something that every manager can put into practice as a means of not simply delivering continuous improvement, but of finding out what’s working and what’s not.

Recessions are a prime time to practice trouble shooting for two reasons. One, managers are challenged to do more with less; two, managers may have more time due to the economic slowdown. Most especially, trouble shooting can be essential to optimizing execution and so for that reason it makes good sense. To implement your own form of trouble shooting, consider three questions:

What is the real problem? Dysfunction is often apparent. For example, a product does not perform to specification. Or a process fails to deliver a consistent outcome. Diagnosing the problem requires the discipline to find the root cause. A product failure could be because of a faulty part; a process failure could result from a missed step. You do not know until you take time to investigate.

How do we fix it? Sometimes, as with product recalls, the fix can be costly. Other times it can be solved by a simple product or process redesign. Judging what it required takes an experienced hand with strong diagnostic skills, but also savvy to understand how to make the most effective solution and do it expeditiously.

Who is best suited to fix it? Putting the right people on the job is essential. Not everyone is a born problem-solver. You want to have people who like asking questions but more importantly have the facility to analyze and implement solutions. You also want people with a degree of tenacity, those who are willing to stick with it until they find a solution.

An important part of implementing trouble shooting is that it puts the manager into closer contact with people doing the work. As all experienced managers know, nothing good can happen without the input and buy-in of people doing the work. And for all the emphasis that companies put on execution, too frequently they omit the human aspect of bringing initiatives to life. By talking and listening to people on the line, or in the cubicles, managers find out what is going well and what requires improvement.

Trouble shooting by itself will not generate value but without its practice, organizations will find themselves repeating mistakes and worse failing to capitalize on lessons learned. And in times of turbulence that is something that cannot be overlooked.

First posted on HBR.org 5.26/2009