(This is Part 11 of Leadership Principles) It’s a stupid cocktail napkin when you look at it. It means a lot to me. A whole lot. I have it tacked to the cork board above my desk. “Q4 losses 7% better than forecast. Nice work. Well done.” It’s scrawled in blue pen and in a couple of spots, it tears through the thin napkin material. Evan wrote it and slipped it to me during a boring lunch meeting. Evan had only been with the company for a couple of months at that point. He was my boss’ boss. He and I had collectively spent 3 hours together over those few months (enough for him to know who I was and generally that my team and I focused on reducing credit card losses). The napkin means a lot to me because a guy who I saw as exponentially busier and more concerned with “big” issues took a moment to share confidential information with me (the 7%) as soon as he got it (it came over his Blackberry). Sort of like what I preach in They know what I know. Other managers wouldn’t have shared this – they would have waited until results were officially published. I felt like I was “in the fold.” More importantly, his note acknowledged that I had some role in creating that result and he appreciated the work I had done to achieve it. I was valued by the organization. A thank you note. That’s all it takes.
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(This is Part 10 of Leadership Principles) As I walked past Evan’s office (he was my SVP – my boss’ boss), I couldn’t help but overhear a terse and pointed telephone conversation. He was being quite belligerent and direct in telling the individual on the other end of the phone how screwed up things were and how he expected them to be fixed in a reasonably short time. Evan emphasized the point that failure to do so was unacceptable because that failure would have a detrimental impact on the people in his organization. I timidly poked my head in his door after he hung up and asked “How’s it going chief?” “Fine. Stupid stupid stupid decisions. I abhor stupidity.” “Who’s being stupid?” “Frank. The guy has no clue how much trouble some of his knee-jerk decisions can cause.” “Yeah. I know. So who were you chewing out on the phone?” “Frank. Don’t you listen?” I listen. Evan’s answer began causing some cognitive dissonance for me. Frank was Evan’s boss – the Executive Vice President in charge of our entire division. “Wait a minute. You were talking to Frank? Like that?” “Yeah. Kick up. Kiss down.” “What do you mean?”
(This is Part 9 of Leadership Principles) Have you ever felt like the proverbial mushroom at work? Kept in the dark and fed a lot of, well… manure? Uncertainty generates fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety generate gossip. Gossip generates rumors and distractions. Rumors and distractions destroy productivity and generate distrust. Do you see where I’m going? We often behave like everything is a state secret that requires a security clearance before someone can be brought into the fold. It’s maddening walking by a conference room with a bunch of muck-a-mucks in it and wondering what they’re plotting (is it a reorg? a layoff? cancellation of the holiday party so we can make our end of year numbers?). It’s amazing how secretive we can be when theoretically we’re all on the same team. Imagine a football team where the huddle consisted of the quarterback, the wide receiver and the center. All the other players have to stand over in the corner and wait until the three in the huddle break and line up for the play. The center snaps the ball. The wide receiver runs his route. The quarterback drops back to pass. And everyone else stands around muttering about how they have no idea what is going on. The odds of that play being successful don’t seem very high. An extreme example? I don’t think so. Reflect on behavior in your organization over the past six months and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of similar examples. So what’s the fix?
(This is Part 2 of Leadership Principles) My platoon was out in the field on training exercises. We had been out there for about two weeks so we all smelled kind of “ripe” at that point. One of the more senior officers in my battalion came to my unit’s area to see how things were going. This “gentleman” personified the term – he was an “officer’s officer” (versus being a “soldier’s officer” which we’ll explore in a moment). He sauntered up to my 18 year old driver (a brand new buck private – the lowest ranking man in the Army) and said “Where’s Lieutenant Figliuolo?” My driver pointed toward our tank. A pair of boots was sticking out from underneath the vehicle. The officer in question became irked. “No. Maybe you didn’t understand my question private. Where is LIEUTENANT Figliuolo?” “He’s under the tank, sir.” “Excuse me?” “I said he’s under the tank, sir.” The senior officer barked “Lieutenant Figliuolo!” I almost smacked my head on the underside of the tank because I was startled by his call. I quickly scrambled from below my tank and stood at attention before my superior. “What were you doing under that tank?”
(This is Part 8 of Leadership Principles) Risk. Does the word get you excited or make you nervous? What if I said “career risk” – would that change your answer? For most folks, it does. Many of us tend to be risk averse with respect to things that could affect our careers. It’s quite a natural feeling. The comfort and security that come with a career are nontrivial and any threat to that regular paycheck can send anyone’s heart aflutter. Now what if I say “career growth opportunity?” Feels good, doesn’t it? We all want to grow and advance in some way, shape or form. We’re constantly looking for the next next. It’s no secret that the era of 20 year careers with a pension is dead. Long live the job hopper! All the better if we can find these career growth opportunities in our current organization. But here’s the rub – your desire for career growth opportunities is usually in direct conflict with your manager’s appetite for career risk. The same dynamic holds true for your peoples’ career growth desires and your appetite for career risk. You want your boss to take a chance on you. To give you that big juicy project to run. To carve off that exciting and undefined new role for you. All those scenarios create huge learning opportunities for you and provide a platform for you to catapult your career to the next level. Heck, they might even lead to a promotion and, heaven forbid, a nice fat raise. Of course your boss should take the chance on you! They owe you cool new opportunities – because that’s what they promised you when you took the job. Because let’s be clear – if your current organization won’t create opportunities for you, someone else in […]
(This is Part 1 of Leadership Principles) “Your words haunt me Sir. Every time I see a piece of trash on the ground, I hear your voice in the back of my head ‘remember – if you see it, you own it.’ I must have picked up fifty things since I last saw you.” Those words were sent to me via email by a fine young cadet at West Point. I met him while I was a mentor at the Military Academy’s annual National Conference on Ethics in America. The conversation we were having was about your responsibility as you move through the world. A belief I’ve always held true is when you see a problem, you own the problem. Now I recognize the limitations of this maxim. I see global warming. Do I own it? Well, not all of it but I do have some burden there. I can at least recycle or even start a recycling program at my company if it doesn’t have one. Enough with the abstract examples. Let’s move to the real world. The best leaders I’ve worked with have a mindset that they are responsible for making their organization better whether that work falls within their job description or not. Some of the weakest leaders I’ve seen use organizational silos as a defense for not fixing a problem. “Gee, I’d love to help but that problem is in so and so’s organization.” Nice job of stepping up pal. I’d much rather work with and for the person who instead says “That looks like a big issue over there. How can I help solve it even though it’s not in my area?” You get the picture.
(This is Part 7 of Leadership Principles) One of the most exciting things you can do as a young tank platoon leader is participate in a tank gunnery exercise. Essentially it’s going to a shooting range with some really big cannons mounted on a 68 ton chassis. One particularly hot summer in Colorado, I went to my second gunnery. About six months before this gunnery exercise, I had a new soldier transfer into my platoon (let’s call him Specialist England). He had been in the army for about three years by the time he made it to my platoon. He wasn’t the spiffiest soldier nor was he very fond of all the regulations (he’d occasionally break them – flagrantly). In short, he was a bit of a “problem child.” Nonetheless, I was responsible for him and his performance. England went on several field problems with us in those six months. It was usually pretty difficult to motivate him to perform his job well. He simply didn’t have a fire in his belly to train hard and train well. My platoon sergeant and I had multiple conversations with him about his lack of performance but for some reason we were never able to get beyond “yeah… I’ll try to do better” with him. After those difficult six months, we headed to this summer gunnery. I was excited about the event but somewhat concerned about how England would perform in a live fire environment. As we sat around playing Euchre (an army favorite) for hours in the sweltering heat, I decided to send my driver over to the snack shack to buy some sodas (my treat). I gave him a few dollars and he was about to run off to get our drinks. Before he bolted I told him to get two […]
(This is Part 6 of Leadership Principles) Now that I’ve touched on some basic principles for thinking about how you view yourself and move through the world, it’s time to switch gears and look at ways to interact (or not interact) with the folks in your organizations. I hate the use of the word “just” in front of anyone’s title. “He’s just an analyst.” “She’s just a cafeteria worker.” “I’m just an administrative assistant.” No one is just anything. The phrase is demeaning and pejorative. We’re all people – we happen to have different responsibilities. The connotation of just is that someone is worth less than someone else. As if that just someone has a defect. One of the most powerful leadership skills I’ve seen and used is valuing everyone’s contributions equally. How do you do that? Simple – treat everyone like a person and an equal first and foremost. The work sorts itself out in the end. For example, I walked by a Senior Vice President’s office one day. I knew his assistant – she was a wonderful lady. We got to talking and she mentioned a problem she saw regarding how assistants were paid. I told her “You see it, you own it. Raise the issue and see if you can get it fixed.” “But I’m just an admin.”
(This is Part 5 of Leadership Principles) “So what exactly do you do Mike?” The question was posited by the snarkiest of my direct reports during my staff meeting (a subject I’ll opine on some time in the future). My job was to direct “the business.” Theirs was to run their respective business units. “Well, I set direction for you guys, set aggressive goals, coach, recruit, and mentor team members. Most importantly though, I act as a Human Crapshield for you guys.” Puzzled looks all around. “A Human Crapshield? Give me a break.” “Look – you really never want to know the volume of crap I shield you guys from so you can focus on your job rather than dealing with the crap.” “Yeah, I’m sure the crap is unbearable. Sounds to me like you’re justifying your role as useless corporate overhead.” Ouch. I’d hate to know what it would be like if my team members didn’t like me… Middle managers and junior executives often find themselves in a pickle. They’re no longer the front-line “doers” nor are they the high up muckety mucks who make the big decisions and the big bucks. They find themselves in the purgatory between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in an uncomfortably undefined role. Yes, they’re responsible for all the items I list above (and then some) but the one role they might be unaware of and underestimate the importance of is the role of Human Crapshield. A Human Crapshield? What exactly does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
So what? We’ve all been there – sitting through that dreadfully long presentation full of facts, figures, and complex analyses only to leave an hour later wondering “so what?” So what do we do now? What was the point of that? What was the conclusion? We’ve all heard about “tricks and tips” to engage the audience: use props, tell stories, and use flashy PowerPoint. The list goes on. The problem is, if the audience doesn’t “get” your recommendation or personally care about it, no number of tricks can help. Unfortunately as presenters, we often fail to define that key “so what” before we create our presentation. This ultimately leaves our audience wondering what our point was. Fortunately, this problem is easy to avoid. Doing so requires you to identify your “core idea” well in advance of doing any analysis or creating charts. This core idea is the one thought you want your audience to remember. It is the “what should we do and why should we do it?” recommendation that captures their attention and gives them a compelling reason to act.
The twenty-something trainer with the exuberant and bubbly personality bounces at the podium. He is spouting the latest framework and management buzzwords to a rapt audience. The materials are flawless and the theory makes a ton of sense. From the back of the room comes the killer question: “So I get the framework, but how does it actually apply to the work I do every day?” The trainer struggles to articulate a single instance of how he’s used the framework in day to day work environments. Why? Because he never has—his entire career to date has been spent behind that podium. Enter “The Practitioner” There is a rare breed of instructor out there known as “the practitioner.” She has been classically trained on fundamental frameworks, methodologies, theories and tools. She’s applied those concepts and tools in real world business situations. Her resume is a testaments to the impact she’s had: bottom line savings; reorganizations; strategic plans and step-change business improvement. She drives change in her companies. She is so valuable to the team she leads that she spends her career moving into positions of increasing responsibility. Unfortunately, she is one of a just a few who are given a chance to train the next generation of leaders because the rest of the practitioners are too busy “doing their day jobs.” One organization that clearly “gets it” when it comes to using practitioners as trainers is the U.S. Army. Almost every Army service school is staffed by experienced soldiers who not only know the theory but have applied it in actual field situations. They can vividly articulate how theory applies to the real world, which aids student comprehension and retention of the materials (not to mention making it more interesting to listen to in class). Practitioners exist in business as well. […]
(This is Part 4 of Leadership Principles) “Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it.” – Albert Einstein Pretty smart guy that Einstein fella, huh? Mark my words – he’s gonna go places that guy… He seems to know what he’s talking about. Unfortunately we regularly ignore his advice and wisdom. All too often I’ve seen folks become hoarders of information or students of endless minutiae in their quest to prove their value as employees (all the way from administrative assistants up to business unit presidents). Everyone is afraid to say “I don’t know.” They believe it exposes a weakness and in our excessively competitive world, many believe a weakness like failure to know something is a career death knell. I prefer to employ the opposite approach. Ideally, I’d like to know nothing. Nothing other than who has the answers. First of all, it makes my life a lot easier. I spend little to no time poring over spreadsheets filled with arcane numbers. I don’t keep troves of information (other than personal financial files but that’s a vestige of my days in the Army where you’d get challenged on a six year old expense report on occasion – and you were definitely guilty until you could prove yourself innocent). I simply try to stay very current on who knows what about what. I stay intimately connected with as many people in the organization as I possibly can. I’ve found this to be effective for several reasons. First, this approach gets me out and talking to people. I love talking to people. Hearing their stories. Learning about their jobs. There are a lot of cool people in your company. You should get out and meet them. You might be surprised by how much you […]