Ten Failures of a Leader: Majoring on the Minors (#7)

As a leader, there are always going to be competing priorities.  On a daily basis, a successful leader has to continuously analyze and reallocate one of the most critical resources to organizational success: his or her time.  The question that all leaders should ask on a regular basis is if I am best matching my time to the needs of the organization, team, and my employees.  If the answer is no, then there are productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness shortfalls that can be improved.  There are a variety of reasons for why the best match may not be occurring, but the one that has some of the most serious implications is referred to as majoring on the minors.

Majoring on the minors occurs when a leader allocates a disproportionate amount of time to minor or lower level activities instead of focusing on duties more congruent with their leadership position.  A successful leader should focus on surrounding him or herself with competent managers and staff, creating a clear and desirable vision of the future, and enabling employees to meet their individual as well as the organizational goals.

I worked with an executive in a competitive, service organization that had moved from being a project manager to leading the organization.  As a project manager, he had exceeded individual, team, and organizational goals countless times and was known for being tough, detailed oriented, organized, and responsive.  As an executive, he kept all of these traits, but did not supplement his abilities with any additional skills.  He ran the organization like a single project instead of a growing and dynamic organization that needed regular guidance on strategy and execution.  After several years, he was exhausted, staff left on a regular basis, and the organization was stuck in basically the same place it was years before.  As we discussed the situation, we turned to how he allocated his time and it became evident that he was majoring on the minors.  As an executive, he spent a considerable amount of time overseeing day to day activities of clerical staff, reviewing small dollar expenses, challenging staff on small details, and micro-managing the managers.    He did little that would be considered truly strategic, publicly visible, or growth-oriented.  The damage of his approach was less evident as long as the markets expanded and strong managers drove the organization and filled the gaps.  However, the organization stalled when the economy presented more challenges and as managers became disheartened, felt the lack of leadership, and withdrew.

This is just one example, but when a leader majors on minor things the outcome is very similar: leadership vacuum, less than optimal performance, and employee dissatisfaction.  So, why would a leader knowingly major on the minors? There are three major reasons this behavior occurs:

  • Pick the easier issue
  • Do what I know
  • Control as a necessity

Pick the easier issue

Some leaders gravitate toward majoring on the minors out of ease.  Minor issues are easier since they are much smaller in scope, less complex in nature, require less thought, and usually possess viable solutions.  Which is more stressful: being held accountable for making risky decisions in an uncertain environment or mediating a minor dispute in the office?  Literally, some leaders will attempt to fill his or her time with minor issues so it can be claimed that there is not time for the big issues.  Another common reason for selecting the easier issues is that it allows a leader to show success at decision-making with little chance of error or mistake.

Do what I know

Most leaders served in a lower level managerial position or capacity before taking on higher level leadership responsibilities.  Those methods that work for the manager are many times carried over into the new capacity and employed in a different situational context than the work group or unit.  This occurs due to the assumption that “the methods served me well before, so they should work well at this level also.”  Research as well as practical experience has shown that this assumption is not sound.  In the example above, the executive employed the same methods that made her successful at running projects at the organizational level.  Although the methods made her exceptional when managing projects, they hindered her success in the higher level position.

Control as a necessity

Some leaders have a strong need to control their environment including those that work for them.  It is not uncommon to have a friend or relative that struggles with control issues.  Those that require a controlled environment to feel comfortable tend to major on the minors since everything is important and the small things afford more opportunities for control.  This reason will be discussed further in the next post on Failure #8: I Need to Control the Environment to be Success.

Figure 1: Leadership's Average Use of Time
Figure 1: Leadership's Average Use of Time

In order to share the practical impact of majoring on the minors, here are the results of a recent survey of a mid-size employer on how their leaders spent their time.   Figure 1 captures the average time spent on major activities by their leadership team for the last year.  Surprisingly, more than half of the average leader’s time is being spent on meetings and other activities (55 percent).  When the respondents were asked to describe the other activities, many were minor activities.  Developing strategy, building staff capability, recruiting high performing team members, and improving operations total 20 percent or half of the time committed to meetings and less important activities.

Time is always going to be tight.  So, a successful leader has to focus on those things that pay the highest dividends:

  • Setting priorities
  • Ensuring goal attainment
  • Making important decisions
  • Building a team
  • Engaging employees

Ten Failures of a Leader: Communication is Threatening (#6)

Communication is the basis of almost all human interaction.  Communication builds trust, decreases uncertainty, increases productivity, and strengthens the cohesion of an organization’s culture.  Although communication is known to be absolutely critical to any relationship or organization, most of us struggle at assembling and transferring our messages to others.  Benchmarks on organizational communication reveal that a “leading” organization only has a 60 to 65 percent satisfaction rating on internal communication while the typical is closer to 35 to 45 percent satisfaction.

So, what do employees receive in “leading” organizations that they fail to receive in others? Effective employee communication typically relays the following answers on a regular and consistent basis:

  • Where is the organization going and how is it going to get there?
  • How do I fit into where the organization is going?
  • What do I need to do and why?
  • How should I do it?
  • What are the expected outcomes?
  • How does what I do benefit the organization and those we serve?
  • What should I expect in the future?

Poor or inconsistent communication on these questions has a direct cost in the form of lower productivity, decrease performance, and even employee turnover.  An employee feels the most engaged and integrated when he or she is confident that the organization has developed answers to these questions and taken enough interest to relay that information.

Given all the benefits and relative simplicity of communication, why do leaders fail as communicators?  Some of the most common excuses include:

  • Runs counter to knowledge is power
  • Requires more openness and sharing
  • Forces tough questions to be answered

Runs counter to knowledge is power

In most organizations, “being in the know” or “having the gossip” is considered a badge of prestige among peers.  Most organizations possess a formal and informal internal communication network that operates partially if not completely autonomously from each other.  The formal system is usually thought of by employees as being less informative, but biased by management’s desires.  The informal network is assumed to be more honest, but interwoven with personal bias and embellishment to make the information more interesting and the holder of information more important.  Regardless of the network, those that have information are thought of as being more important, accepted, or powerful.  Based on this human predisposition, some leaders horde knowledge and communicate less since having knowledge makes them more powerful and reinforces their perception of themselves.

Requires more openness and sharing

Communication typically requires a two way exchange.  The level of openness coupled with  considering the opinions of others can be very threatening to some leaders, inconsistent to their adopted leadership style, and viewed as a waste of time by others.  A key to successful exchange is establishing that providing feedback is an important part of the communication process, but the leader retains the right to actually make final decisions.  Exchange becomes threatening when a leader allows the opinions of others to easily sway his or her decisions from the intended course.  This psychological effect pertains to a perception that if I listen to someone else, then I need to react.  This effect can create anxiety and even deteriorate confidence.  Similarly, some leaders feel that their “enlightened” or superior status precludes the need to have an exchange with others at all.  Those susceptible to this persuasion feel that others have little to add that is meaningful and spending time listening would only be a waste of time and energy.  Finally, some leaders will not embrace openness due to the time needed to have discussions with employees when other priorities are deemed to be more important.

Forces tough questions to be answered

A leader wants to have all the right answers.  It is very intimidating for anyone to be questioned and not know what the right answer is or how to explain something clearly and convincingly.  This characteristic is further exacerbated by the part of the myth of leadership that perpetuates that our leaders are somehow divinely or mysteriously endowed with perfect insight and knowledge.  Not surprisingly, most leaders list not having the right answer as one of their biggest fears when communicating with employees.

The basis of any healthy relationship is communication.  Similarly, it is almost impossible for an organization of be high performing without a high level of communication and a strong exchange of ideas.   Employees more than ever before want to understand their role, what their future might hold, and be part of an organization that recognizes their value by treating them like partners in an important endeavor.  A successful leader has to set fears and concerns aside and make the investment necessary to communicate.

Only Certain Relationships Are Important (#5)

Relationships are a key part of being human.  In our very nature, we crave to belong or be tied to other human beings.  As leaders, relationships are a very key ingredient to our success with employees, customers, or other stakeholders.  Research has shown that leaders tend to minimize the importance of relationships while employees place a high value on relationships.  When a leader considers all the factors that result in their success, the nature and strength of relationships is one of several.  For most employees, the relationship with the supervisor and coworkers is paramount to job satisfaction and productivity.  According to the 2009 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Employee Satisfaction Survey, 52 percent of employees consider the relationship with their immediate supervisor as a very important aspect of job satisfaction while 42 percent identify relationships with co-workers as critical to job satisfaction (http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Articles/Documents/09-0282_Emp_Job_Sat_Survey_FINAL.pdf).  Conversely, a recent major university survey of leaders found that relationships with employees ranked 26th out of 30 important activities.  Similarly, a survey that I assisted with asked questions of leaders in the southeast about what are the most important leadership characteristics.  Out of rankings of six key characteristics, relationships scored the lowest with only 18 percent of respondents identifying it as an important characteristic (see Figure 1).  Ethics and creativity scored the highest with a rating of critical by more than 50 percent, respectively.

Figure 1: Most Desired Leadership Skills
Figure 1: Most Desired Leadership Skills

What makes a leader place so little emphasis on relationships?  Most leaders concede that their professional growth was aided by professional relationships, but few replicate those relationships with their own employees.  Research has shown that when relationships are lacking between leaders and employees, it is many times due to a lack of making the action a priority, insecurity in helping others grow, or inadequate people skills on the part of the leader.

These reasons take the form of:

  • I don’t have time to have more relationships
  • I only need to know the important people
  • I don’t know what to do

I don’t have time to have more relationships

Most leaders are responsible for greater amounts of work and have fewer resources. Some of this demand to do more with less is a function of the times, but it should not be overlooked that demands for greater productivity has been a fairly consistent during the last 30 years.  Moreover, most leaders are “working managers” and have a full time job as well as have leadership responsibilities to their employees.  When feeling overwhelmed, the tendency is to decide which activities are necessary and which are not as a means of survival.  I worked with a group of managers last year that had been very successful at building relationships with outside stakeholders.  When I asked about what type of relationships they have with their employees, there was nervous laughter.  After a long pause, someone asked if I thought they really had time to build relationships with employees given what needed to be done and what they had collectively accomplished.  Another attendee questioned the wisdom of building internal relationships when external stakeholders were viewed as being “so much more important to the future of their organization.”   The puzzling part of the exchange was what happened to those outside stakeholders once internal stakeholders needed to provide them with high quality services.

I only need to know the important people

As I explored the idea of which relationships are the most important, the same group of leaders talked about “important people” and everyone else or “other people.”  They defined “important people” as those that you serve on a regular basis and consider their feelings and motivations, communicate clearly with, and respond to in a timely manner.  The “other” people are there to serve you and not for you to serve.  If a leader operates with this kind of dichotomy, what happens when relationships are not maintained with the “other people” over time? When employees are asked how they react to a poor relationship with their supervisor they are very clear about the impact: lower morale, decreased productivity, diminished customer service, and higher turnover.  Consequently, poor relationships do have a cost and it can be monumental.

I don’t know what to do

Although it seems counter intuitive, some leaders reach their positions without having a strong understanding of what it takes to actually have successful relationships.  A humorous, yet very realistic depiction of the relationship impaired boss appears in Stanley Bing’s Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up.  Bing describes a boss similar to an elephant in form and behavior:

  • Appear bigger and taller than everyone else
  • Eat a lot each week
  • Hedonistic, even if they are in denial
  • Accustomed to getting what they want
  • Play by their own rules
  • Have short attention spans
  • Clean and fastidious – dress nice and travel well
  • Hate doing nothing unless it is called a meeting
  • Need direction from others

As one would expect, if an elephant practiced his workplace persona with a spouse or friend, then the relationship would not last very long.  Consequently, it is not surprising that workplace relationships tend to be poor and we end up with a basic discrepancy between the desired or accepted personality and what is best to engage productive employees. It is very possible that a leader does not know that he or she is acting like an elephant, embraces their elephant like characteristics, or feels that they have the right to be an elephant based on title or position. Regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same: a poor relationship with employees and reduced potential in the team and organization.  Part of growing as a leader is learning about people, how to communicate, and how best to leverage the interests of all.

We live in an age where relationships are increasingly important.  It is easier to form them than before if we want to simply expand our network, but it is harder to make the time necessary to create meaningful and reciprocal relationships.  Nevertheless, to be a successful leader we have to develop and nurture relationships with our most important resource.

Ten Failures of a Leader: Perfection is Attainable (#4)

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning that work of becoming yourself.

Anna Quindlen

It is not easy being a successful leader.  Employees desire and are motivated by different things, resources are scarce, jobs are only becoming more complex, and uncertainty is the norm in our current environment.  A group of leaders I worked with recently summarized the current situation as one in which as “soon as one thing starts to improve, another or even two things start to fall apart.”  I asked the group if it was similar to what I experienced a few years ago.  I had a leak in the sunroom, so I had to put on a new roof.  As soon as the new roof was finished and I thought things would finally be a little calmer, the central air started blowing hot air during a rather hot summer.  By the time I figured out how to balance paying for a new roof with a new central air unit, the car started to make funny sounds.  As I described that summer, the group laughed and said that is exactly how they would describe their day to day existence as a leader.

While working with the same group, the conversation in the afternoon turned to how there is very little margin for error as manager.  One mid-level manager made the comment that the expectation is that she will be perfect all of the time.  Another manager mention how an executive told him “mistakes were ok as long as he made him aware” of the issues, but his experience was that he was punished every time he mentioned anything that went wrong.

The very nature of human life is imperfect.  Although we often talk about the perfect life, job, home, child, or spouse, perfection is a something we strive for and rarely attain.  Likewise, this tendency to view things in two categories (perfect or not) significantly impacts our view of ourselves and those that work for us.  Below are three key things to keep in mind when you feel the tendency to judge events by perfection:

  • Mistakes are part of leading
  • Improvement is a key part of success
  • You have to be realistic

Mistakes are part of leading

When I played more than watched soccer, I learned a lot from a coach that I had.  He would start every game by telling us what we had to do to win, but ended each inspirational speech with the statement “soccer is a game of mistakes; winners make less mistakes than the other guy.”  In many ways, leadership is governed by the same laws of the universe.  No matter how much we grow and commit to excellence, there are going to be things that we do that will not meet expectations.  Several studies have shown that as much as 80 percent of business decisions are made less than optimally for the average manager.  Part of leadership is that you are not always going to make the right decision.  The best you can hope for is to analyze situation, account for all views, consider short and long term outcomes, and make a decision.

Improvement is a key part of success

Like any other skill or ability, experience makes a difference in performance.  Once we become leaders, it is common to look at development as being a nice luxury, but not as necessary as before becoming a leader.  This change in mindset is due to a variety of things, but some of the big ones include the image we have of reaching a position of leadership, adopting a leadership style that we will use, and increasing demands on time as a working leader. There is little assumed need to improve if we feel like leadership is a destination we have reached instead of a journey, we are wed to a single leadership style or approach, and we are just too busy to learn or do anything new.  Everyone in every vocation can learn new things and improve.

You have to be realistic

We all make mistakes and we can accept that in most other facets of our lives. However, when we think of ourselves as leaders, something becomes more threatening when acknowledging failure.  It even becomes common to operate under the myth that somehow failure as a leader calls into question if we should be leader.   In most cases, we learn more from failure than success.  Several years ago I worked with a leader that had assembled an amazing team.  She used relationships and connections to recruit some of the best people in her industry and the team was exceeding peer organizations in almost every category of performance.  Over the course of a year, most of the team left and she wanted to explore why.  As we discussed events, it became evident that she wanted herself and the team to be perfect.  She lost the ability to deal with shortcomings in the team and herself and the team members sought to be led by someone that could help improve the team as well as herself.

Like in most things, perseverance and learning are critical for success.

Ten Failures of a Leader: I Can Make Everyone Happy (#3)

We live in an age when happiness is hard to quantify and even tougher to hang on to for any length of time.  Although we have more resources and opportunities than any other generation in human history, we still struggle to find what will make and keep us happy.  Last year, the New York Times published an article on the secrets of happiness based partially on Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness that identified a few key elements of happiness: strong relationships with family and friends, lack of materialism, enjoyment of daily activities, and forgiveness of others.  As part of his research, he also assessed the emotions of 272 employees and correlated the results with job performance.  Unsurprisingly, he found that happier employees perform at higher levels and are more productive.   Other studies have found that not only are happy employees more productive, but have better health, less insurance claims and lower absenteeism.

As leaders we play a role in employee happiness at work on a regular basis.  As many of us struggle with our own happiness, we find it is even harder to apply what we know to others.  Out of a desire to make things simple, we tend to fall into three employee happiness “traps.”

The most common happiness “traps” include:

  • We are completely responsible or not responsible for our employee’s happiness
  • Everyone has to work in a rewarding environment
  • Even the wrong people can be made into the right people

We are completely responsible or not responsible for other people’s happiness.

As human beings, we have a tendency to be extreme about happiness.  The most extreme are two polar opposites: those that feel completely responsible for someone else’s happiness compared to those that care very little about anyone’s happiness.  The first type wants to be liked by everyone and operates many times as a friend to employees more than a leader.  These leaders struggle constantly with being successful except in unusual cases.  They create a workplace with heightened jealousy, greater personal conflicts, and hurt feelings.  This type of leader tends to be on an emotional roller coaster between feelings of elation at having made employees happy and feelings of sincerely hurt when employees fail to cooperate with them.  The other extreme are those leaders that assume that if people are happy they must be “slacking off” or not working at the level required.  Sadly, these leaders are happiest and feel most effective when employees are the most miserable and can be a truly caustic force in the workplace.  Both variations are extremely damaging to employees and organizational success in the short as well as the long run.  A leader should be interested in engaging, enabling, recognizing, and developing employees, but happiness is defined by the individual.

Everyone has to work in a rewarding environment.

Most of us recognize that a rewarding environment is critical for employee success.  Although there are a variety of ways to engage, motivate, and encourage employees, some jobs in the end do not match the employee’s skills, interests, and abilities.  This lack of a “good match” significantly reduces the potential happiness and productivity of the employee.  Most employee surveys find that interesting and rewarding work is one of the top three most important predictors of satisfaction in any industry or job.  No matter how flexible or supportive an environment, if an employee does not feel a sense of fulfillment with the work assigned, it is unlikely he or she will be happy.  A common phrase that captures this perfectly is when we refer to “trying to put a square peg in around hole. “  As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to determine how well we have “matched” our employees to the work assigned and adjust accordingly.    If an employee is a poor match, it makes more sense to help the person move on to something more fulfilling.

Even the wrong people can be made into the right people.

There is some debate over what to do with poor performers. One camp argues that everyone can be made a great performer with the right investment while others feel that the wrong person should be replaced with someone that is better suited to the job.   Jim Collins in Good to Great made famous the idea of “having the right people on the bus” before embarking on strategic change (summary of the book appears at http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html).  Research is progressively showing that the opportunity cost of creating a high performer is more expensive than recruiting a high performer.  However, it is human nature to fall into the trap of thinking someone is happier with a job than without.  This decision limits the happiness of the person by asking them to continue to work at something they are not successful at or feel a sense to engagement. This is not fair to the organization or the employee.

A concluding thought is that we are never going to make everyone that works for us happy, no matter how hard we might try.  Leading is about making decisions with partial information, scarce resources, and competitive demands.  As a result, there are perceived if not actual winners and losers in almost every decision we make as leaders.  The best you can do is increase as much as possible the positive and minimize the negative effects.

Ten Failures of a Leader: All I Have to Do Is Turn the Wheel (#2)

How many of us have worked for a boss that he or she had no conception of what it takes to actually get the group’s work done? I have heard from employee groups time and again that their supervisor has no idea what resources, time, or effort is needed to reach the unit’s goals and more importantly the information is not of great interest even.  Some employees describe the leader as someone that if he or she says it, then it should magically appear.  On those occasions when magic does not occur, it is usually assumed to be the fault of the employees and their own inadequacies instead of a lack of planning, resources, or guidance.  Most of us find this leadership characteristic at the very least annoying and many times unbearable.

The analogy that I like to give is to think of when you get in the car before your morning commute.  Once you turn the car on, you have completed one key element of the process and you are part of the way to work.  However, there is a lot that has to happen after turning the ignition to actually get to work.  Think how ridiculous it would be if you told your boss that you tried to get there, but nothing happened after you started the car.

What causes this lack of reality? More often than not, a few common leadership misperceptions pertaining to how things actually happen are at the core. Sadly, most of us acquire these misperceptions from leaders we work for and only emulate them later in our own careers.  The most common ones are as follows:

  • Execution Happens
  • Do As I Say, Not as I Do
  • One Size Fits All

Some leaders only adopt one of these misperceptions, but there is a tendency for them to stick together in our minds.

Execution Happens

“Execution happens” relates to the tendency to make the assumption that all that being a leader requires is giving instructions and letting things happen.  Movies, books, and even media reports describe famous leaders as individuals that almost spoke great actions into being.  However, reality is more complicated.  Employees function more efficiently and effectively when they understand:

  • reason for their actions;
  • how to accomplish the assigned actions;
  • expected outcomes; and
  • how the actions fit into the overall unit or organizational goals.

Do As I Say, Not as I Do

Leadership is about being the one that people can and want to follow.  Think back to your own development and how much influence the leaders you worked for had on your growth and even the practices that you use today.  However, the idea of being the one that sets the standard in the workplace has diminished in the last few decades.  Shockingly, I have even worked with manager groups that claim they don’t need to lead by example any more since people should know what to do.

One Size fits Every Situation

For decades in most societal venues, we worked under the assumption that most people are the same.  Entertainment, food, clothing, and even jobs were tied to a specific set of expectations that were assumed to apply to every consumer as well as employee.  As human resource professionals, we designed standard compensation, benefits, and development programs hoping to satisfy the greatest number of employees with the least cost.  Not just business, but government also assumed that there were basic things that we all needed and little variation in preference existed between us.  However, over the last two decades, we have found that human beings are much more complicated than thought and want most things their own way.  Today, most of us are actually insulted when an organization does not provide at least minimal level of customization to our experience with them.  Leaders who forget this human characteristic will never realize the full potential of their employees without tapping into this need.

Leaders must be involved and do more than give orders.  True leaders provide guidance, inspiration, and customization to their teams.  We all want to feel that we do something important that will be recognized by our supervisors as well as those that we serve. In the absence of these feelings, it is hard for employees to feel adequately led.

Ross Perot said it very well:

Lead and inspire people. Don’t try to manage and manipulate people. Inventories can be managed but people must be lead.

Ten Failures of a Leader: I Don’t Need to Know More about Myself (#1)

Several years ago I was working with a group of leaders on their goals and aspirations.  One of my initial questions related to what they thought was the most important thing that they could do in the coming year.  Some recommended increasing unit performance, others thought it would be good to grow the size of their department, and a smaller group felt it would be good to reorganize their people to better match duties to capabilities.  Although all of these goals possessed varying levels of value for their organization, I found it strange that the goals were all organizational and none were personal.  I moved the discussion to the individual level and received an explanation for why there was little personal focus in the previous answers.  A high level executive mentioned that there was no real need to focus on himself since he was already where he wanted to be: in a position of leadership in the organization. He further elaborated about how he spent earlier years in his career gaining what he needed to reach this plateau, but now that he had arrived, he obviously possessed what was needed.   In many ways, the comment made leadership sound less like a journey and more like a destination.

In all occupations, if we desire to improve, we have to continuously add to our knowledge, skills, and capabilities.  Like every activity in our lives, experience and learning makes us better at meeting our goals.  Being a successful leader is not an exception to this axiom of life.  One of the first steps to determining how to improve is taking an honest inventory of the following:

  • What is my motivation or why do I want to be a leader?
  • How do others see me as a leader?
  • How do I see myself as a leader?
  • What type or style of leader am I?
  • What capabilities do I excel at and how can I build on each?
  • What areas can be improved and what tangible steps need to be taken?

This self assessment is not an easy process for anyone especially someone that has been successful enough to become a leader in the workplace.  One of the common characteristics of a successful person is that he or she has a gift, ability, or level of determination superior to others.  While this is many times the case, a self inventory forces each of us to remove the protective part of our personalities and honestly look at our own faults and shortcomings.

What are some common things that we might learn from this inventory process?

I may be a leader because it was expected of me instead it being something that I really wanted.

The traits that helped us become a leader may not be the same ones that make us a successful leader.  Think how many productive and effective workers are promoted due to performance to positions of leadership to only fail in their new role.  It is only recently and in some cases through a painful process we are starting to realize what makes an employee highly effective at one job is not always enough to make that same employee effective as a leader.

It is never easy to see yourself through someone else’s eyes.

A big job of a successful leader is to try to understand the motivations, aspirations, and needs of those that work for you.  However, a much tougher process is to allow those that work for you to honestly and without fear of retribution tell you what they think of you and your capabilities as a leader.  We all have areas for improvement.  Although even in the best of circumstances this can be a humbling experience, it is a critical part of being a successful leader.

Self evaluation can be an elusive and rewarding experience.

It is a normal part of being human to develop an internal image of who we are.  Think your current employees and how few that would consider his or her performance as average.  Most of us amplify our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.  As leaders we suffer from the phenomenon and can only from if we gain a “true” perspective of our strengths and weaknesses.

The type of leader that I am may not match the image I have in my mind.

There are a variety of personality type or leadership style tests available.  Although the tests vary slightly in approach, almost all focus on categorizing people into specific or ideal types and then indicating the alignment between the types.  In working with leaders in the past, many have used popular leaderships tests to only find that they image of themselves as a leader does not match what the test indicates their true style to be.

Strength and weakness are both very important for improvement.

It is not enough to just address weaknesses or only build on our strengths.  We have to address the failures and the success to become more effective leaders.  In our busy lives, we have to set priorities and many times we focus on the one or two things that we think would make the most difference to our work.  However, it is critical to find the right combination between building on strengths and improving weaknesses.

If you look at leadership quotes from famous leaders, the statements are usually phased as “do this” or “do this and don’t do that.” When you compare those quotes to the lives of those leaders, it is not surprising that most quotes relate to a challenging period in that leader’s life or a tough issue that the leader dealt with and overcame.  One of the characteristics that made past leaders successful and preserved by history is that the leader was willing to examine his or her individual successes and failures and take action.  We all face the challenge.

Ten Failures of a Leader

Think back and ask yourself how effective each of your past bosses was as a leader.  If you are like most of us, you probably have experienced good and bad leaders.  Only a lucky few have worked for someone that we would consider truly a great leader.  The vast majority of us have worked for “good, but” leaders.  A “good, but” leader is a leader that an employee describes as being a good leader, but he or she could improve in some areas.   Regardless if you subscribe to leaders are born or developed explanation of leadership, almost everyone accepts that a person’s leadership skills like most capabilities vary in the level of performance.

When employees are asked to name the positive traits of someone in a position of leadership, the list is usually short in comparison to the list that the same group of employees produces to describe the negative attributes.  Why is that the case? One might assume that we are drawn to the negative more than the positive since that is part of our basic human nature.  Although that might be part of the explanation, I think what we might find that we can identify the negative traits more easily because they impact our daily lives more significantly.  Leading psychologists argue that for each bad thing that happens to us, it takes five good things to counteract the negative effect.  So, when a leader disappoints us, it has a much stronger impact on us than when a positive action is taken.  In many ways, a leader works from a deficit when he or she has exhibited a negative characteristic until it can be offset by positive actions.

Figure 1: Major Issues with Internal Leaders

What are the ten things that hurt a leader’s capability to lead the most? What comes after the “good, but” for most of us? A recent survey of several thousand employees (Figure 1) found that coaching, communication, and relationship skills are the greatest shortcomings of leaders and impact between 65 and 80 percent of respondents.  A lack of strategy, direction, and performance commitment form a second cluster of concerns and relates to around 50 percent of employees.  Unfairness, micro management, poor delegation skills, and inadequate organizational skills make up the last grouping and impact approximately 40 percent of employees.

Over the coming months, we will look at each of the Ten Failures:

  1. I Don’t Need to Know More about Myself
  2. All I Have to Do Is Turn the Wheel
  3. I Can Make Everyone Happy
  4. Perfection is Attainable
  5. Only Certain Relationships Are Important
  6. Communication Is Threatening
  7. Majoring on the Minors
  8. I Need to Control the Environment to Ensure Success
  9. Change Management Is Not a Critical Skill
  10. I Know What I Need to Know

Engagement without the Ring

There is a lot of discussion of employee engagement in the media right now due to workforce reductions, concerns with a jobless recovery, and general distrust in major institutions.  Generally, when we talk about engagement, the concept refers to the level of commitment an employee has to the ideals, objectives, and performance of an organization.  An engaged workforce possesses a sense of ownership in the activities and values of the organization, shares a sense of ownership with coworkers as well as the organization, and links their individual success to the organization’s success.   Being engaged requires high levels of energy as well as leveraging available capabilities to ensure that outcomes are accomplished in the best manner possible.

Change is the order of things, but the move to a more “mercenary” workforce has clear and significant implications for engagement.  For illustration purposes, I want to draw on the experience of a family friend.  A family friend recently became engaged and gave his fiance a beautiful ring.  He had spent months looking for the perfect ring and was very excited about presenting the ring to the love of his life.  Our friend’s fiance agreed to marry him to his delight and they jointly entered into the pre-marriage period.  Like many couples, the ring is symbolic of the commitment they have made to their relationship and being together.  It is an outward sign of their exclusivity and the bond between them.

As I talk to various employee groups around the country, most feel that they entered into an agreement similar to our friend’s engagement when they joined their current employer.  They relay stories of the hopes they had about joining their current employer and all the opportunities that would be made available to them.  However, they say with time the ring was taken away.  The reasons for the removal of the ring vary, but it all equates to the same thing: a promise broken and a wish unfulfilled.

How do we counter the feeling of the missing ring?

There are things that employees value in addition to commitment and stability.  Some of the big ones include:

  • Flexibility to meet or balance work and personal needs
  • Positive interaction with coworkers and supervisor
  • Feeling of fulfillment related to the work performed

How to Create Engagement in Trying Times?

As the recession continues, many organizations are considering how to increase employee engagement to meet current needs with fewer resources. Research has repeatedly shown that an engaged employee is more productive, motivated, and satisfied. For example, the Hay Group in 2002 in “Engage Employees and Boost Performance” found that engaged employees were 49 percent more productive than those that were not. The dilemma arises from how to create stability and certainty in very unstable and uncertain times.
An economic downturn causes a number of challenges to engagement: greater uncertainty, workplace instability, and personal life difficulties. How often have employees come to you in the last year or two and expressed their fear and frustration with not knowing what will happen next in their work or personal lives? What assurances were you able to give them?
As managers and employees are being asked to do more with fewer resources, there is less time to participate in activities that actually reduce the impact of uncertainty and anxiety while improving engagement. With the limited time we do have, it is critical that we invest in people during a time when people need support the most. What can we do?

• strengthen relationships;
• show empathy and support;
• increase communication;
• exercise flexible;
• instill a positive outlook; and
• acknowledge their commitment.

Start with one or two things a day from this list and help engage the workforce when they need it most.