Category Archives: Leadership

Kicking the Can

“Things didn’t get nasty,” Ron reported, “but, I think it’s because I put the brakes on the meeting, and simply adjourned it pretty quickly.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Two of our managers went after each other in the meeting. One complained about the other in front of the rest of the executive team. That immediately turned into defensiveness. I stopped the conversation from escalating and told everyone we would pick this up next Monday.”

“Timeouts are not necessarily bad, especially when the emotions speak so loudly that we cannot even hear the words. But, tell me what impact this had on the rest of the team? What did this exchange teach them about how things work around the company?”

“Well, for one thing, it clearly communicated that I will not tolerate rude or insulting behavior,” Ron explained.

“And, what else did it teach them?”

“That if the behavior persists, I will shut it down. I won’t tolerate it and I will take action.”

“And, what else?” I pressed.

“You have something in mind when you ask the same question three times,” Ron chuckled.

I nodded yes.

“Okay. The team learned that when things get rough in a management meeting, where emotions surface in the conversation, we will avoid the confrontation and kick the can down the road.”

“Now, we are getting somewhere,” I said.

Human Connection

“Why do you want them to come back to work, in the building, I mean?” Pablo asked.

“They have been away so long. Since I’ve seen them, they may be two inches taller and I would never detect that on Zoom,” I smiled. “Seriously, they are detached. I miss seeing them in person, that warm smile in the morning, finding out how their child is doing. On camera, there they are, but it’s all business. Hi, how are you? Fine. How are you? Fine. What are the numbers on the spreadsheet?”

“What do you care? As long as the numbers on the spreadsheet are correct?” Pablo wanted to know.

“If I just wanted numbers on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t build a company. I need a team. I don’t know why it’s important to be face to face, I just know it is.”

Pablo’s turn to smile. “You are correct, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Kurt Lewin declared that human beings are herd animals. For the purpose of our survival, on the Serengeti plain, we had to stick together, for safety. An individual, isolated, became quick prey for a lion, a tiger, in Dorothy’s case, a bear. When we are isolated, we are alone. When we are alone, our survival instincts go full alert. We are hard wired to not get eaten. We may be fishing, we may be planting wheat, but we are looking for the lion, not paying attention to the fish or the wheat. Our attention to the work suffers. We only do our best work when we are together and safe. We feel safe as a member of a group, in proximity. Hugs create endorphins and communicate, with me, you are safe. Spreadsheets are easy on Zoom. Human connection is more difficult.”

Is It Money?

“These young people! Argh!” Benjamin exclaimed, exasperated. “I just had another quit on me.”

“How many? Total?” I asked.

“Three, since the new year. For all different reasons, one says it’s money, another says he wants to live, relocate somewhere else, the last one says he doesn’t like me. That one was the worst.”

“Tough enough to hire the people you need, now you have to hire three more. This hiring problem looks to be more of a retention problem,” I said. “What do you think people want out of their job?”

“First is money and to bring their dog to work. Actually, they want to work from home, so the dog can stay.”

“Ben, why do you work here? I personally know you could earn just a little bit more from another company, so it’s not the money.”

“I’ve been here for eleven years, this is my home, these are my friends. I feel like I make a contribution to what we are all here for, and the team values my contribution. I make a difference here.”

“Do you think it is possible that your team members, who just quit, are looking for the same thing?”

The Relationship

So, I left Shannon to ponder why. Why was she drawn to be a manager? I asked you the same question.

Shannon was promoted to manager as the next thing in her career. It was different than she thought it would be. She thought being a manager would make her more important (it does). Being a manager provides authority to tell people what to do (prescribing authority).

The additional compensation doesn’t last. Being important may stroke a manager’s ego, but that ego trip wears thin very fast in the face of accountability. It’s not about the manager. It’s about the relationship between the manager and the team member. Shannon’s report –

“But you were right. It wasn’t for the money. It wasn’t so I could order people around. I just want to make a difference. A difference for the company, a difference for the people on my team and to make a difference for me.”

It seems that Shannon has a cause. But having a cause is not enough. To be a truly effective manager, Shannon has to be had by the cause. And it take some time to understand the cause, to be had by it.

It’s Not For the Money

Shannon was staring at her desk. She didn’t look depressed, but certainly not happy.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Not much,” she replied. “I was really ready to come back to work from the holidays, but yesterday was a barn burner. Ever since I was promoted to manager, things have been different around here. It was so much simpler when I just came to work and punched a clock.”

“So, why did you want to become a manager?”

Shannon furrowed her brow. “I don’t know. I just got promoted.”

“Why didn’t you turn it down?”

“I never thought about. It was a promotion, I got a raise.” I could see in her face that she had never explored this question before.

“That’s the reason most people become managers,” I said, “for the money. But if that’s the case it never lasts. The second reason is ego, you know, all the authority to push people around. But that doesn’t last very long either. Management is hard work, times get tough and if you are going to survive, you have to discover why you are drawn to be a leader.”

And so I left Shannon to struggle with the same question I am asking you. Why are you drawn to be a leader?

Slowly, Then All of a Sudden

If I did not allow you, as the manager, to come to work tomorrow, what tasks would your team find to work on? I get a variety of responses, but they all come down to this – Tomorrow, they would work pretty much on the same things they worked on today.

And if I held you back another day, what tasks would your team find to work on, and what methods would they use? The responses continue to be – They would work pretty much on the same things as today, using the same methods as today.

Good. Now, how long could your team continue to do that without you? Be honest.

The team could continue to work on the same tasks using the same methods for a long time.

How long? Exactly up to the very moment when…

Exactly up to the very moment when something changed. In that instant, you, as a manager, suddenly had a job. Management is about helping your team adapt to change. In fact, if nothing in your market, in your industry, in your state, in your town, with technology ever changed, then your company would not need you.

The more change you see in your market, in your industry, with technology, the more management you need.

Meaning of Life

“I know I need some help,” Ellen explained. “I am in a new role, I have to step up my game. I know you and I know that many people trust you to help them. I need you to teach me, so that I can become a better manager.”

“I am flattered,” I replied, “but I must tell you a story.”

There was a young woman searching for the meaning of life. She had heard of a wise man who lived at the top of a mountain, who, by all reports, could help in her quest. So she made preparations for the journey.

It was a long journey, traveling by foot. Many overnights before she arrived at the mountain. The mountain was not particularly dangerous to climb, but the path was another two days journey into a higher elevation.

Finally, she arrived, and sat with the wise man she had heard so much about. After explaining the reason for her travel, she asked the question. “Sir, what is the meaning of life?”

To which, the wise man quickly responded, “My child, Life is a River.”

The young woman was clearly taken aback. “I heard you were a wise man, so I traveled many days to arrive at your mountain, then traveled two more days into the clouds to speak with you about the meaning of life, and all you have to say is that Life is a River?”

The wise man looked directly at her, “You mean, it’s not a river?”

Working Together

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

You have talked about managers and systems. And you’ve described the most important system for a manager as the People System. What’s inside that system?

There are three primary accountabilities for any Manager.

  • First, is that the Manager is responsible for the output of the team. I don’t listen to excuses that some team member failed to perform, or some other team member fell short. I hold the Manager accountable for the output of the team.
  • The element that supports that output is the ability of the Manager to assemble the team together. This has a great deal to do with identifying and selecting talent.
  • Once assembled, the Manager must lead the team to work together, competently and with commitment in pursuit of the goal.

Failure in any part of this system falls to the Manager.

Good? Leadership

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Continued from yesterday –
I recently had a conversation with a leadership guru that stated that you don’t need formal structure in a small business, if you have good leadership. He indicated that you don’t need documentation, role descriptions, or even much for KPIs.

The problem with “good leadership” is that it becomes person dependent. We are juggling three balls in the air.

  • Leadership
  • Small Business
  • Good Leadership

Leadership vested in a single individual, is person dependent. It may work in a small business because there aren’t that many people. A handful of people can follow a single individual, because if there is any doubt as to who has the authority to make a decision, the team can just ask the leader. That also means the leader must be available (proximity). But, if all decision making must go through the leader, as the company grows larger, what happens to the speed of decision making. Slows down, or stops.

Small Business
All decisions going through the leader is a hallmark of a small business and assures that the business will remain small. If all problems have to be solved by the leader, as the company grows larger, what happens to the speed of problem solving? Slows down, or stops.

Good Leadership
Good leadership requires competent management skills. Good management requires competent leadership skills. You can’t have one without the other (please, no discussion about leader vs. manager). Effective leadership, among other things requires clarity. Poor leaders will be uncertain in their decisions and communicate ambiguity to the team. Good leadership requires clarity. So, if your leadership guru says all you need is good leadership, I might agree, but only if that definition requires the formalization of things like role descriptions, documentation and KPIs. That’s what good leadership is, it’s clear.

No Formal Structure Required?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I recently had a conversation with a leadership guru that stated that you don’t need formal structure in a small business, if you have good leadership. He indicated that you don’t need documentation, role descriptions, or even much for KPIs.

If life were only that simple. Let’s break this down over the next couple of days.

You don’t need a formal structure.

You have a structure. Every company has a structure. Structure, or organizational structure, is simply the way we define working relationships between people. Org structure is a mental configuration, usually starting with the mind of the founder (or current CEO). But, everyone else in the organization also has a mental configuration of those working relationships as well.

We translate that mental configuration to a piece of paper, with boxes, circle and arrows and call it an organizational chart. It’s a two dimensional representation of that picture we have in our heads. Important in that org chart is the way we define two things –

  • Accountability
  • Authority

In the working relationship between two roles in the organization, what is the accountability and what is the authority (to make decisions or solve problems the way we would have them solved)?

So, on the face of the statement made by your leadership guru, I would disagree. It is important to define the working relationships and to put them on a piece of paper so we can discuss them. The purpose for the discussion is to ensure that what the founder, or CEO, thinks is pretty close to what everyone else thinks. Without that agreement, friction occurs in the form of personality conflicts or communication breakdowns.