Ten Failures of a Leader: Change Management Is Not a Critical Skill (#9)

The key to change…is to let go of fear.

Rosanne Cash

Change is part of every person’s life.  The very nature of the progression of life involves change and for many of us a certain level of discomfort.  Human nature is such that we grasp on to patterns (good or bad) and become comfortable when we have standard repetition.  When we deal with change, most of us develop a certain level of stress.  Research has shown that stress impacts health, personal relationships, and productivity. In the workplace, high levels of change instigated stress increases turnover, interpersonal conflict, and absenteeism.

As a leader, being able to formulate and execute successful change is critical to job success.  However, a leader has a dual duty of personally accepting the change as well as assisting others with the transition. Similarly, the leader has to deal with his or her stress and the stress associated with others.  This double impact makes some leaders very hesitant to embrace change.

Here a short quiz to assess the level of your change management skills:

1.       What emotion do I feel when there are major changes at work? (excitement, despair, or uncertainty)

2.       When I am asked to initiate change, what do I do first? (panic, plan, or act)

3.       How do I handle concerns with the change process from employees? (ignore it, give it lip service, or communicate honestly and frequently)

4.       How would you handle a lack of executive sponsorship if you were responsible for change management? (give up, complain, or make a better case)

5.       If employees don’t want the change to occur, what would I do? (marginalize them, argue with them, or educate them more to the merits of the process)

Most of us know the right answers to the above questions even if we do not always practice them.  If you answered and practice (excitement, communicate, make a better case, educate), then you have many of the basic skills necessary to be successful at change management.

Several years ago I worked with a large organization that was in the process of automating about 95 percent of their transactional processes.  The organization had invested approximately $10 million and made the successful development and deployment of the new tool a chief priority.  Toward the end of the project, I met with the project sponsor and asked her about their progress.  She started off very positive until I asked her about what the organization would look like after implementation.  She paused, looked away, and said that there were some problems.  As I delved deeper, she revealed that with all of the changes and hard work people put into the project, they had decided they would let the current team stay.  I asked her how the executive team was taking that and she brightened and said it was their idea.  She told me that the executive team really had their hands full, wanted to avoid conflict, and saw any outcomes beside completion as being supplemental.  As a result, a project that was designed to eliminate almost $500,000 a year in reoccurring costs resulted in a net increase of almost $200,000 in new cost and faster transactions.

Over the last several years, I have worked with a variety of leaders that made similar decisions and implemented the easiest portions of their change agenda.  When asking these leaders the reasons for selecting this path, three primary justifications were the most prevalent:

  • I don’t really believe in the change
  • I don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand
  • Change is healthy and it will work itself out

I don’t really believe in the change

A key part of successful change is having an executive sponsor coupled with as much organization buy-in as possible.  As a result, one of the biggest reasons for change failure is a lack of support among managers.  Some of the most common reasons for a lack of support include leadership fatigue, competing priorities, political conflicts, professional differences of opinion, or a lack of practical change management knowledge.  The last reason is of particular interest since it is the most preventable.  A common explanation I have heard over the years is that leaders fail to develop change management skills due to a belief that if something is favorable in the leader’s mind, passion alone will drive the process.  In cases where the change is not supported, then skills necessary for success are irrelevant.  Most of us as leaders have to support change we don’t agree with and we need the skills necessary to be successful.

I don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand

As discussed in a few of the Failures of a Leader posts, time is a scarce commodity for a leader.  As the leader attempts to balance the competing demands of the workplace, some things are relegated to less important status.  A common statement I hear in organizations working to deal with change is that “I don’t have time” to deal with all the education, anxiety, and emotions that accompany change among my staff.  Most of us as leaders underestimate the influence we can have on staff by listening, acknowledging, reducing stress.  Research has shown that after coaching, listening and acknowledging or expressing empathy is one of the most important personal characteristics that a leader can have. “Holding everyone’s hand” is necessary if that is what it takes to move everyone forward.

Change is healthy and it will work itself out

Another common point of view is that change is a part of life and it will work itself out.  This organic explanation might make sense when considering very simple changes, but rarely corresponds to reality when attempting to accomplish change in an organization.  Most of what we create attempts to resist change and this inertia can prevent things from “working itself out.” How many of us as leaders would accept from our employees the explanation that their tasks are going to “work itself out” or that there was not a lot they could do to make something successful.

Managing successful change is a critical part of a leader’s job.   We have to own the change, support the process, and dedicate ourselves to realizing the associated outcomes.  How do we do this? We have to develop the skills necessary to do the following:

  • Develop a clear plan and objectives;
  • Gain organizational support for the change;
  • Offer strong and frequent communication;
  • Gain visible and complete support by leadership; and
  • Educate employees and gain their involvement.

Ten Failures of a Leader: I Need to Control the Environment to Ensure Success (#8)

How many of us have worked for leaders who felt compelled to monitor every step of every process, avoid delegation unless absolutely necessary, and practice narcissistic behavior in the workplace?  Most of us have worked for or at least witnessed a leader that had control issues.  Here are a few types that you might recognize:

  • Task Jockeys
  • Report Monkeys
  • Squawking Emailers

Task Jockeys are always on the back of employees: riding, directing, and whipping.  No matter which direction an employee goes in, how fast he or she runs, or how much better he or she is than others, the Task Jockey continues to whip and goad the employee to complete even the most simple and mundane tasks.  If the employee shows any deviation from the jockey’s designed path regardless if it saves time or improves performance, he or she will be corrected due to not following directions.

Report Monkeys suffer from “reportmania” or the desire to document, analyze, and adjust everything on a continuous basis.  Nothing is substantiated or even considered acceptable without a report that provides even the most meaningless data to the leader.  When reports are not available, the Report Monkey jumps around and runs from place to place in a frantic fashion requesting data and assuming the worst at every turn.

Squawking Emailers feel most in control when reminding you on a regular (even hourly basis) what needs to be done and how it should be done.   Email has revolutionized their behavior since it is much easier to send an email numerous times than to call repeatedly in short period of time.  It is likely as children they were the masters of the mantra that many a parent has heard on a road trip: “are we there yet?” As adults, they ask continually “are you done yet.”   They are like large, loud birds that constantly squawk with the announcement of each email.

Although these types are presented in a slightly humorous manner, the obvious downfall of a control-focused leader is that most employees cannot work under that type of scrutiny or control for any length of time.  Those employees that are high performers desire to be treated like trusted professionals and leave the organization to find better working conditions.  Those that remain usually have fewer choices and will eventually make up the core of the unit or even organization as a whole.  Not only are these employees lower performing on average, but become demoralized due to the hopelessness of being in a controlling environment with few options for escape.  Sadly, the process of chasing off the high performers while retaining the rest reinforces the leader’s justification that his or her controlling nature is necessary to ensure workplace productivity.  The leader sets the events in motion that result in the justification of their behavior as being necessary.

The cost of having controlling leaders is dramatic.   For the leader, it results in enhanced emotional anxiety, impaired decision making, stunted communication, and confounding priorities.  Within the organization, the costs are increased turnover of high performers, reduced employee performance capacity, enhanced crisis cycles, and diminished workplace stability.

Given these exceedingly high costs, what stops a leader from changing these behaviors? A few of the core assumptions that prevent change are as follows:

  • People cannot function without my guidance
  • One way to do things
  • Distrusting of others

People cannot function without my guidance

Some leaders work under the assumption that their superior intelligence, work ethic, or capabilities make others incapable of doing their jobs without constant attention and guidance.  Among those leaders that adopt this style, they are typically threatened by employees they feel are more capable, show too much independent thought, or question the rationale behind decisions.   Moreover, out of a desire to ensure the perpetuation of their practices, they hire employees that are considered to be less of a threat in the future.  As a result, leaders with this approach end up with a weaker workforce that could need more guidance and support.

One way to do things

As part of an all day session on leadership and operations, I joined a group of participants for lunch.  One attendee had a rather large sandwich she had brought from home that looked like it should have been made on a television cooking show.  Most of us looked on with envy as she removed it from the cellophane and laid it on her napkin with great delicateness.  Taking a plastic knife from someone sitting beside her, she started to cut her sandwich in half with a basic sawing motion.  About half way through cutting her sandwich in half, one of her peers leaned over , cleared her throat, and told her that she was cutting the sandwich wrong.  The peer took the plastic knife from her hand and began to describe how the sandwich should be cut while illustrating with hand movements above the sandwich.  A quite tension filled the room before someone laughed and said “we don’t even trust someone to cut a sandwich unless it is done our own way.”  Not surprisingly, the sandwich became one of the primary metaphors for the afternoon session.    It is human nature to feel that our way is the best or even the only way.  It is not a very enlightened or even realistic view, but it is one that is easy to possess.  When a leader feels that he or she is the only one that knows how or what to do, conflict and fatigue will result in the workplace.  Moreover, the working group does not benefit from the experience and capability of the team.  A leader that can only accept his or her way of doing things is severely constrained in improving innovation, productivity, and effectiveness.

Distrusting of Others

Some leaders find it impossible to trust those that work for them.  The reason for distrust can arise from a leader’s past experiences, general lack of confidence in the team and its abilities, or various forms of personal paranoia.  In the absence of trust, the leader feels that he or she is the only one that can be depended on to ensure the group’s success.  Through not delegating or directly controlling employees and their actions, the leader assumes the best results are achieved and he or she accomplishes the intended purpose.

Economic downturns bring out the worst in most employees as well as leaders.  However, the effect of the recession is even greater on those that are controlling leaders.  As the external environment becomes less constant and certain, the controlling leader responds with attempting to control those factors that are close even more. This is a very dangerous combination for any organization.

Employees want to be partners in solving problems and helping their organizations to be successful.  Very few want to be controlled and will normally seek ways of signaling their dissatisfaction with their environment in variety of unproductive ways.  A controlling leader needs to identify the root of his or her behavior and discover a balance that is more conducive to the organization’s goals.

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