Monthly Archives: September 2011

What Happens When You Say “Charge”?

Trustworthiness is frequently listed among corporate core values and leadership competencies, but it is not always easily defined or understood. I think Rob Roy, former Navy Seal and Founder of SOT-G, an executive leadership and team development company staffed by former members of the Special Forces, captured the essence of trustworthiness in a recent interview with Inc. Magazine.

. . . a great leader is someone who is going to step up at a difficult moment and make that next decision. He’ll go into it blind, but people will follow him, because they’ll know he always has their best interests in mind.

Do those you are leading believe this about you? Or do they perceive you to be a person blinded by your own agenda or ambition, or insecure to the point that you fail to stand up for your team, or an attention-seeker, taking rather than sharing credit, while reserving the glory roles or assignments for yourself?

Those questions are not easily answered. Your good intentions mean little when it comes to how you are perceived as a leader. What counts are consistent actions, decisions and behaviors that, over time, send the clear message that you are acting in their interests; that the mission is worthy of their sacrifice; that you are there to equip and empower them to achieve what they may have thought to be impossible; and that you are sure to credit them for the successes for which you are frequently praised.

This kind of trust is gained over time, and lost over night. If you have it, guard it carefully. If you don’t yet have it, examine your actions and decisions to understand how they are being perceived, and make the adjustments. Having a fully engaged team is always beneficial, but absolutely invaluable when it is time to take the next big hill.

Dangerous Assumptions

I was in a discussion recently with a group of employees who were sharing their thoughts about how much they missed the company-wide executive updates that had, at one time, occurred on a quarterly basis. It seems that the room in which the group had been meeting became over crowded because of the growth of the organization. With the overcrowding, the senior leadership team decided to forgo the meetings in favor of passing information through department heads, at least until better facilities became available. I thought the insights of the group were interesting as they expressed their desire to hear from their leaders. They indicated that the lack of communication had left them feeling detached and out of the loop, even somewhat disengaged from what is in the minds and even in the hearts of the leaders. It also opened the door for misinterpretation of events and dangerous assumptions that were not necessarily favorable to the heart and intent of the executives.

Although this was a highly engaged and committed work group, the lack of communication from the executive team sets the stage for turning a very positive culture in the wrong direction. When left to make their own interpretations and assumptions you can be sure that people will reach different conclusions than what you, as their leader, would like for them to.

I was in conversation with a CEO of fairly large, very high performing organization recently who seemed to understand this better than most. When our discussion turned toward communication he made it pretty clear that this was one of his top priorities, even though it is not necessarily on his list of favorite things to do. He mentioned that from a personality perspective he is an introvert and would rather do a lot of things other than stand in front of a group, but that he does it because he believes it is critical to his team’s success. He said that he tries a variety of ways to communicate with the entire team on a regular basis. One month he may conduct a town-hall meeting. On another he may send a newsletter or a comprehensive e-mail. He said he never lets a quarter go by without a town-hall meeting, because without such meetings and communications that keep people informed and up to date, the misinterpretations and false assumptions will take on a life of their own and potentially undermine everything else they are trying to accomplish.

Another organization I worked with became pretty creative when they experienced similar overcrowding. They were so intent on developing and creating a high performance culture of engagement, that they utilized broadcast voicemails and WebEx interface until they were able to move into a larger facility. But as soon as they moved into the larger facility they made a couple of acquisitions that took them across the country and around the world. They immediately purchased video conferencing system that could be used for all kinds of communications, one of which was their monthly “state of the company” meetings. Those were especially invaluable to them during the initial downturn in the economy when there was so much uncertainty. The CEO wasn’t a master public speaker, but he was a great communicator. During that downturn, the employee engagement, productivity and growth of the company exceeded all expectations and industry benchmarks.

Another example comes from the largest company in the world which I had the privilege of working closely with for over 15 years. Wal-Mart makes it a high priority to communicate with their Associates. They do it in large groups, via in-store satellite broadcasts, e-mail, twitter, small store meetings, Saturday morning meetings facilitated by the executives, executive broadcast voice mails, quarterly state of the company meetings conducted by members of the executive team, through their Friday morning officer and senior management meetings, which are immediately followed by department meeting updates to disseminate the information just shared, and on and on, I’m sure. In a company of that size, I guess you just cannot over communicate! I believe that is one of the elements that helps make a really large company feel small and entrepreneurial.

I personally believe that this is true for companies of any size. The higher the quality of the communication, the higher the employee engagement. It is easy for leaders to lose sight of this critical success factor. They are in the thick of things every day, and those they hang out with most of the time are right in there with them. It is easy for them to believe (assume) that everyone is on the same page, or that people will understand why they are too busy for such meetings, or that someone else is communicating the message they want to have delivered. Now those are dangerous assumptions!

9/11: Three Leaders Who Gave More Than Great Speeches

Every one of you reading this remembers where you were on that tragic day in 2001 when the planes struck the World Trade Center Towers. I was in my office at the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics, near the campus of John Brown University in Northwest Arkansas, when one of our administrative assistants told me the news of the first plane hitting the towers. I immediately went from our little off campus offices to the main campus to find a television set, where I sat with a dozen or so students in stunned silence as we watched the horror of that tower in flames, and then with greater horror as the second plane struck the other tower, and more so as we heard about the attacks on the Pentagon and the thwarted attack of Flight 93 on the White House. Our horror was at its peak as we watched people jumping out of windows in attempts to save their lives, and ultimately, as the two towers collapse in a heap of rubble, ash and smoke.

The emotions of that morning are difficult to put into words, because they range from numbness to fear, to anger, to grief, to incredible loss, to compassion, to empathy, to helplessness and to a sense that this truly cannot be happening.

Like many of you, I did what I could at the time, which was call friends, loved ones, and colleagues to share this moment with them, to remind them that I love them, and to determine whether there was anything that could or should be done to support them.

What I remember most, was the next couple of hours of silence from everyone except the television reporters. We really did not know what had happened and we really did not know what the next step would be. And finally, the voices of leadership came through crisp and clear.

There were three voices that brought everything back in focus for me. The first was Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was the first official to remind the people of New York and all of America of who we are, what we are made of, and how we will get through this incredibly tragedy. I don’t know about you, but I really needed that reminder. When it seemed as if our world was being destroyed and a major threat was intent on destroying us, Giuliani reminded us that we will never let such cowards destroy the spirit of who we are.

The second voice was that of President George Bush. It seemed like forever, before we finally heard from him, but when we did, he expressed the anger and rage that every American felt. I grew up in Texas where courage was king and toughness was a badge of honor. When the president came on with his Texas rhetoric and promised that we would do everything in our power to find and bring to justice the terrorist who did this, to rout them out, smoke them out and hunt them down, I was once again reminded who we are, the mission in front of us, and the faith and courage it would take to see it through.

The third voice came late that evening when the people of Arkansas finally heard from their Governor, Mike Huckabee. His summary was the most memorable of all I had heard that day, as he, like the others, reminded us who we are. He also reminded us whose we are, that we are children of God, and under His protection; that we are people of faith, of hope, and of love, all of which are essential for getting through such a tragedy.

Those three voices of leadership were exactly what I needed that day. They gave me hope, courage and determination in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances. I know that leaders are not made with speeches. That is obvious from our current Speechmaker in Chief. Leadership is most evident where the rubber meets the road. These three moved from great speeches to great action. Giuliani mobilized the nation to reclaim New York. Bush crystallized the efforts of the nation our security and on bringing our terrorist enemies to justice. Huckabee returned us to our faith, to our national hope and optimism, and to love and compassion, all of which are foundational to our nation’s success and prosperity.

I am thankful for leaders who speak well, and especially for those who follow their words with tangible results.

Retaining Top Talent

In every executive survey that I have read or participated in, senior leaders of organizations list “finding and retaining top talent” as one of the top 3 issues that concern them most as they look to the future. I actually believe that most of these leaders are actually pretty good at attracting top talent to their organizations. In fact, it is not unusual for the CEO or Senior Executive to make the final sales pitch to a top candidate to persuade them to join the company and participate in the mission. That kind of attention and pitch is often all it takes to persuade the candidate to cross over to their team. Unfortunately, that is where many of these leaders and their organizations drop the ball. Highly talented people believe they will be welcomed, valued, inquired of, respected, recognized and rewarded. That is what they heard when you said “we really need someone like you with your skills, background and talent.”

The Corporate Leadership Council recently published their survey findings indicating that 25% of corporation’s top employees are planning to change jobs in the next 12 months. That is up from 10% in 2008. Now, I don’t necessarily think “top employees” in this survey is equivalent to top performers, but those stats are startling nonetheless. I believe the problem is even greater since there are so many top performers and high potentials who are actually under-employed as a result of the economy. Many have accepted jobs in companies or locations that are far different than they preferred. They are doing their best to make a contribution while keeping their eye open for the opportunities for the “right” position. This all seems to be substantiated by the fact that employee loyalty has hit a three year low according to a recent MetLife Study.

So how do organizations drop the ball? It is seldom in the tangible rewards category. In fact a recent PDI Ninth House survey, fewer than 10% of people in this category cited compensation and advancement as critical aspects of the job. Everyone knows that these people can get the tangibles anywhere they go, so they are generally offered competitive packages. So, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Security question is answered. When the tangibles are a given, what is truly important becomes the differentiator. Maslow describes these as those things that give Significance, i.e. stimulating, challenging work and an opportunity to have influence in the organization.

What can you do to retain your high performers? Remember the Significance equation. Stay in the recruiting mode for a while longer to ensure the employee has the opportunity to gain Significance. As a hiring manager, you will have to tap into what it is that brings this person Significance. Too often the manager believes they have a marriage arrangement while the newly hired top performer looks at it as an engagement in which they are still evaluating the opportunity.

Communicate with them as a partner rather than as an employee. Stop delivering the unspoken messages that the employee should be grateful you hired them. To a high performer, this is simply demeaning and condescending. Instead of feeling like a partner in the opportunity, the top performer begins to feel like an underling, and they are not likely to tolerate that for long.

Ratchet up the on-boarding process, and actually begin to deliver on your promise. I believe that recovery from failure in this step is near impossible. Let’s face it, even top performers need help getting acclimated to a new organization, and it takes more than an office, a computer and log-in instructions to make that happen. The on-boarding process tells the new employee whether you really understand the change process and whether they truly are valued as you indicated. Make sure your on-boarding process includes actions for 60-90 days and includes specific steps to increase acclimation and engagement. Within the first few weeks a top performer will make the determination whether they are here to stay or ready to move on. The last thing you want to do is to have to win them back when you shouldn’t have lost them in the first place.

Recognize the personal impact of change. Change is hard, even if its change that is chosen. Taking into account added stressors such as transitioning a spouse and/or family, trying to buy or sell a home in this economy, a new city, and the losses associated with moving away from the familiar, and there can be more reasons why this shouldn’t work than why it should. Sensitivity to the personal side of change can go a long way. And remember acclimation to a new community can easily take longer than acclimation to a new job.

The executive who sold them must stay engage with them even if they are not the hiring manager. These top performers and high potentials frequently find themselves reporting to someone who feels threatened by their presence. In these circumstances information is withheld and communication and access is blocked. If there is not a concerted effort on the part of those senior executives who expressed enthusiasm about this candidate, to connect with and engage them, they will disengage and lose their enthusiasm.

Tap the talent. There is nothing more conducive to adapting to a tough change than for the top performers to really like what they do and to be fully engaged in it. Too frequently, the work these employees are given often fails to challenge or stimulate. The organization fails to tap into the expertise, experience and knowledge this person brings to the table, and when these talented individuals do not feel challenged it is not long before they begin to feel undervalued and disrespected and to wonder whether they have made a big mistake. Either way, they begin to question how long they can keep this up just for the money.

The Art of Leading Change

The axioms and quotes regarding change are abundant

The poet, Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, “The chains of habits are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

In business we hear, “The only thing that is constant around here is change.”

In counseling it is often said, “People don’t change until the pain of remaining the same is worse than the pain of changing.”

We’ve all heard and experienced how difficult change can be. It can be especially challenging if you are the one leading change in your organization. In an earlier blog, I mentioned the rate of failure of organizational change initiatives and some of the new research published by McKenzie, so we will not go into that again. However, I would like to tell you a story and ask you to consider the principles that you can use to lead others through the changes that you are attempting to initiate in your organization.

When I was working in a previous career, I had a conversation with a person that went something like this:

I’m having panic attacks and feeling really nervous right now. I want to fly out to a certain city to vacation with my daughter and my grandbaby, but I don’t think I can even think about getting on the plane without going into a panic.

Now, there are several directions that one could take after hearing such a statement. Some would begin to inquire about the nature and duration of the problem. Some would recommend a lengthy counseling treatment program. Others would recommend some type of group therapy. Others would begin to inquire about the origin and duration of the panic attacks, trying to pinpoint a triggering event. Others would have begun to suggest alternative means of transportation to make the trip. I believe that each of these approaches have merit to a certain degree, and I may have even used them on occasion in similar situations. But none seemed appropriate on this occasion.

“Wow, that must be pretty tough, thinking about not getting to spend time with your daughter and grandson!?” I responded.

Yeah, it is, he said with sadness, loneliness and bit of hopelessness in his voice. I really love that kid. I’d like them to live closer to me, but they just really can’t afford it right now. I’d like to help them, but I can’t afford it either. I can barely afford to make this airplane trip, but I’m going to figure out how to make it happen. You know, he really likes me too. I can’t wait to see him, well, both of them. I’d really like to buy a little piece of land and put a couple of trailers on it so we could live close to each other. Now that would be a dream come true.

“How much would that cost?”

I guess I’d need about fifteen thousand dollars to get things started.

“Well, I don’t know what we can do about that, but let’s see if there may be anything else contributing to these panic attacks that we can deal with and go from there, ok?”

Ok, he responded.

“Do you drink alcohol?”

Yeah, a little.

“How much?”

I don’t know. Not much.

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you drink?”

I drink beer, that’s all.“Think about it for a few minutes and tell how many beers you think you drink every day.”

I don’t really know. I have never thought about counting them. I just enjoy them.

“Take your time and just think about it. You’ll come up with the answer in a few minutes.”

Well, come to think of it, I guess I drink about a case of beer every day, because I pick one up every night at the convenience store on the way home from work.

“So, you drink a whole case every night?”

Oh no! That’d be crazy! I drink part of it at night and the rest of it before I go to work the next morning.

“Really? Every day?”

Yeah, I believe so.

“Do you think that the alcohol could be contributing to the panic attacks?”

I never gave it much thought. Do you think that could be part of the problem?“Tell me how you came to conclude that drinking a case of beer every day is “Not much”?”

Well, my dad was a stumbling down drunk. He drank all the time and I am no stumbling down alcoholic, I know that!

“Do you think you are anything like your father?”

No way! He couldn’t even hold down a job and was a terrible father and couldn’t keep his family together. I still have my job. I go to work every day, for over twenty years now. I love my family. Well at least my daughters and my grandson. My wife left me a few years ago.

“So, how are things going at your job?”

I’m doing pretty good. I’m a truck driver. Or, well, I used to be a truck driver until they made me stop because of a few too many minor accidents. Now I just move the trucks and trailers around in the warehouse yard. I’d like to get back on the road again, when I get past these panic attacks. I think they’ll work with me. They are really good people. They are the ones who suggested I call and talk to you.

“So you may be just a little like your father?”

Maybe a little.“Do you smoke, because sometimes the nicotine can contribute to the feelings of nervousness, you know, and that may be part of what causes your panic attacks?”

Yeah, a little. You really think smoking could be causing the panic attacks? I never gave that much thought.“How much?”

How much what?How much do you smoke?

I don’t know. Not much.“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you smoke?”

I smoke cigarettes.

“Think about it for a few minutes and tell how many cigarettes you think you smoke every day.”

Well, I guess I smoke about 3 packs a day. I buy them when I get my beer.

“Wow! That’s a lot of cigarettes! Are you worried about your health?”

I haven’t given it much thought.

“Well, you mentioned loving that grandson of yours, and I understand that cigarettes cause a lot of cancer, and I was just thinking how awful it would be for your grandson to lose his grandpa to cancer.”

Yeah, I really need to stay healthy for him. He doesn’t have a father. I am the only man in his life and I think it good for us to hang out together, don’t you?“Have you ever thought about how much it costs you to buy your beer and cigarettes?”

Not really.

“Well, I don’t smoke or drink beer, but I understand that it can be pretty expensive. How much do you think you spend every day on it?”

We did a few calculations and he came up with a daily, monthly and annual figure that shocked him. He realized that he really could afford to do a whole lot with the money he had if he adjusted some of his choices.

“Do you think you could cut back some on the smoking and drinking while we work on the panic attacks?”

Sure, that would be no problem.“Well, before you say that, let me tell you that I am a little concerned. I mean that you have a lot of alcohol in your system. In fact you are never free from the influence. You are also on a pretty high dose of nicotine. I think if you are considering cutting back, you should at least see your doctor and let him monitor this for you, maybe even go into a clinic to make sure that you have no ill effects from the withdrawal. What do you think?”

You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll let you know.

A couple of weeks went by and he called me back. The first thing he said was:

Well, I wanted to call you and tell you that I quit.

“What do you mean, ‘You Quit.”? Did you quit your job?”

No. I quit smoking and drinking. I have not had a drink or a smoke in three weeks.

“How are you feeling?”

Well, the first few days were lousy. I felt awful. But, I am feeling pretty good now. I can already tell how much money I’m saving. I mean, I can’t believe how much I was spending on beer and cigarettes. Man, I have better things to do with my money than that!

“Did you see your doctor?”

No, but I’m feeling okay now. And I am really excited. I am really pretty nervous about taking that plane flight, but am really looking forward to seeing my grandson.

We talked on and off for over four years. He did take the plane flight. He never smoked again, and now only drinks a beer or two a week. He still has his job and keeps working, but really likes the yard schedule now, so he never went back to the road. He saved enough money to buy the land he wanted and to put the two trailers on it so he, his daughter and grandson could live close to one another, which they do.

Consider the change principles at work here:I never labeled him as a failure or alcoholic. I think he would have resisted that. I never told him he was like his father. I never told him he had to reach bottom before he could change. In his mind he was not an “alcoholic” like his father. He could handle his alcohol. I never told him he would have to give it all up in order to be cured from his “disease”. I never labeled him as “sick”, because I truly don’t believe drinking too much is a sickness. I believe it is a choice. He found the motivation for change within, i.e. his love for that little grandson.

All I did was help him tap his story and his motivation for change. He told his story and talked himself into changing. He gave up what he needed to give up and changed what he wanted to change to make his dreams come true. His motivation for change was within. This is the kind of change that is more likely to stick for the long haul than any other.

In reality, we cannot do much to motivate people. Most of that will have to come from within them. Our job as leaders is to recognize that all change begins with the individual as we help them find their own motivations for change. It is not in mass communications, incentive programs or change strategies, though these can be helpful. Our job is getting to know people, one person at a time, and helping them tell their stories. When they find the connection between their story and ours, engagement in our mutual effort begins to occur. The person in this story is a stronger contributor at work than he has ever been. He loves and values his company. There is a mutual loyalty and commitment to a common goal. They actually help each other achieve their dreams.

Not a bad way to think about change, eh?