Category Archives: Leadership

Leadership and management issues

Visions of a License

Colorbyte Logo

I talk a great deal about visions. About how they should drive organizations, about what they should contain, and about the importance they have on the effectiveness of teams. I see many cases of strong, clear, focussed visions leading to great success.

And I see the opposite. I see organizations that either lack a vision, or that don’t measure operations against the vision on a regular basis. I have two examples right in front of me.

Both examples are from the software industry and both show how easy it is to get distracted from the main point of the company and off to “the plumbing”. It’s a tale of my trying, seemingly in vain, to simply purchase two different companies’ products.

Both examples show how easy it is to get distracted by “the plumbing”

I have had, since youth, a deep interest in photography. And I have owned, in recent years, a parade of better and better photo printers. When I decided to donate two of my older printers to my children’s school, I found that it was a case of “you can’t get there from here”.

You see, both printers were driven by software called a RIP (raster image processor). RIPs are sophisticated programs that control, to minute detail, the output of the printers. They insure that what you see on the screen, ends up on the printer. Sure, you can just press “print” from within your program, but for best results you use a RIP.

There are a number of these programs, and they are all absurdly expensive. The license for these two printers was several thousand dollars (ouch!). So when I decided to donate the printers, clearly I wanted to donate the RIP to drive them. I wouldn’t want the school to have to pay for them. So began my ordeal.

You see, the licensing is obtuse, and is controlled by a tiny (the size of about 6 dimes stacked up) device called a “dongle”. You need the dongle plugged into your computer to run the program. This is a silly form of copy protection. I emailed the company and explained what I wanted to do. It went south from there.

Colorbyte explained that would have to return the dongle (to Florida), pay hundreds of dollars, pay for shipping both ways, and so on. I pleaded for mercy, this was merely a donation, perhaps they would want a charitable write-off too? I exchanged 8 emails, and had five 20 minute phone calls with the sales manager. In the interim I lost, and later found the silly little dongle. I offered to handle the case in any number of ways. I even agreed eventually agreed to their terms, and they suddenly changed the terms.

Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale

Eventually, I gave up. I convinced my local dealer to sell me the competing product at cost (and take a write-off for the balance). Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale — and ongoing maintenance updates from the school, no doubt. And undoubtedly cost the company many times the profit they ever made on me just from the time the sales manager spent handling my case.

I’m not alone. Reading the support forums for their software, Colorbyte’s confusing and obtuse licensing, and this ridiculous little device, cost their customers hours of frustration. The dongle drives people nuts, and makes all the customers feel like criminals.

Colorbyte’s vision clearly wasn’t to create hurdles for their customers, it was surely to create the best RIP they could. But their tech support time, their sales time, and I’m sure their software development time, has been sapped by the silly paranoia about software theft. This clearly costs the company in the long run.

Adobe Logo

My other experience involves the venerable giant of the graphics software industry, Adobe. Makers of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a number of other high-end graphics arts tools, the company has been a software industry stalwart for decades. Simply put, if you are really concerned with the quality of your graphics, you use Adobe’s products.

But the company’s vision of creating the world’s best graphics software and serving the graphics professional, which has served them so well, clearly doesn’t extend down to the licensing department. Buying Adobe’s products has always been hard. And I have the wounds to prove it.

Adobe has always charged far above any comparable product for their software. And because they make the best products, people pay the price. But along with this premium strategy (high price, but you get what you pay for) should come good service, respect for your customer, and a certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt thinking.

But, no. Adobe, you see, is paranoid too. Because their products are out of the reach of the non-professional, they get stolen. Probably a lot. So Adobe has complex licensing and authorization hoops to jump through when you buy their products. And their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

Their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

I’ve just hung up the phone from a 54 minute phone call with Adobe customer service. My seventh such phone call in the last month. All because I wanted to buy their latest upgrade.

But I made it hard, you see, because I recently switched from Windows to the Mac. This makes it a “cross-platform upgrade”. And apparently something really hard to do. I had to sign and fax in three different affidavits, certifying that I’m going to destroy the old versions. I had to pay for the new version in advance. And I apparently had to wait.

I placed the order and jumped through all my hoops, five weeks ago today. I still have nothing to show for it. In the meantime, I’ve called customer service seven times, each time having more hurdles tossed in front of me. All for this seemingly simple $399 purchase — a purchase every other company would let me do online and download the software immediately.

Each time I call customer service, I find that the purchase has been stopped on another bureaucrat’s desk. Each time, no one bothered to tell me. Each time, I had to call, wait on hold, wait while some poor sap in Bangalore looks up the information, only to find that somehow the purchase failed to meet some ridiculous test. Last Friday, after another hour of hoop jumping, “Jen” promised me it would be expedited, and shipped overnight. She promised to email me the status immediately. I never heard from her again.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale.

Today, “Frank” spent 54 minutes looking up my order, and eventually gave me a tracking number for DHL. A number DHL says does not exist.

And amazingly, I just got a call from “Jen” at Adobe to tell me that the heavens have opened and the product has shipped. Ground, not overnight. I should see it in 7 – 10 business days. Almost seven weeks after this simple purchase was made.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale. Even at the rates of customer service in India, the phone charges, overhead, and pay to “Frank” and “Jen” has to have made this sale a total loss for the company. And has left them with a thoroughly upset customer. And as the old adage goes, “a happy customer tells a friend, an unhappy customer tells everyone they know.”

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software.

In the end, Adobe has probably lost site of their vision, just because of all this paranoia. And all because people who wouldn’t buy the product in the first place are stealing it. There is no lost revenue here, the thieves never could afford it, and people who make their living with it happily pay for it. And perhaps, when they grow up and can afford it, since they’ve been using it, the thieves would buy it. But they have to jump through the hoops — maybe it’s easier to steal it.

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software. They let paranoia over come them, and let their lawyers or “compliance people” rule the day. They forgot customer service, and respect for their customer. They forgot their vision. And they are much the worse for it.

Lose the Bad Apples

Apple

Like many police departments these days, Seattle’s is under fire for the handling of a number of incidents, and the possibility that the officers overreacted. I’m not going to dive into the depths of the argument over individual cases. It is so hard to be sure of the facts, and all sides immediately jump to polar positions. No, I’m more interested in the effect this has on the department and its leadership.

Unfortunately that effect is not good. And it’s not at all assisted by the Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who has spent the last few weeks angrily lashing out at the various review boards that have criticized the department and specifically his leadership of it. His reaction has been shrill, and embarrassing. It’s achieved a level that the only reasonable result can or should be his resignation.

But then today comes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with an interesting article about this issue. In the article entitled “Few police officers trigger complaints” the Police Officer’s Guild (the union) attempts to shine a good light on the department.

Their main point is that, in a department of over 1200, something around 10 officers get more than three complaints a year. That’s less than 1%, they argue, and that shows this is a good department. Their point is that everyone should get their knickers out of a twist, this just isn’t that big of an issue.

To me, this is just a leadership problem

In some sense, they are right. This is a small number, and we shouldn’t overreact. However, to me, this is just a leadership problem… and a union problem.

You see, I’m a strong advocate of losing the bad apples promptly. I have always advised leaders to cut their losses, and to escort the poor performers, the troublemakers, and the bad attitudes quickly to the door. And choose again from the barrel of apples.

I always tell managers: “wouldn’t you like to be done with this problem, and have a chance at getting a superstar in the exchange?” Imagine life without the hassle of this person, and with the true possibility that you replace them with someone who could really light the place on fire. Most managers with whom I have this conversation realize the logic immediately. Their eyes glaze over and they dream of life in the post-hassle era.

I even advocate moving on from the only average performers. “Wouldn’t you want to change that C player for a chance that you could get an A+ player?” As long as you hire carefully, make decisions quickly, and cut your losses often, you’ll end up with an A team in no time.

In the case of the Seattle Police Department, my question after reading this article, is “why the heck do these officers still work there?” Move them on. Choose again from the barrel of apples.

Why the heck do these officers still work there?

I’m not advocating firing officers who get any complaints. Clearly some complaints are baseless. But when only 13% get one complaint, fewer still get two, and only 10 get three or more, the course is clear. Move them on. I don’t even care if these complaints are questionable. By the time you get three complaints, something is wrong. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

And this is especially true when there are people lining up to be police officers. They got 1200 applicants for their last police academy class. Surely somewhere in that mod are some truly good apples.

The stickler in all this, of course, will be the Guild themselves. They have, no doubt, negotiated a terrible contract where firing someone takes years and something just short of an act of God to accomplish. They should be embarrassed themselves to be creating an environment where these bad apples can sully the reputation of the whole department.

But the lesson here is clear, if you are spending time managing the bad apples, lose them and choose another from the barrel. You will thank me for it.

How NOT to Quit

Seattle Mariners Logo

Mike Hargrove, the manager of the Seattle Mariners walked into work this morning as said “today is my last day as manager of the Seattle Mariners”. To say this was a shock would be a vast understatement.

The thing that was most curios about the announcement was his reasoning. He said: “It was just getting harder and harder for me to get up for the games each day. I still could, it just took me longer than I would like.” When asked if he had “lost the fire for baseball”, he quickly replied “no, that’s not it.” In fact, other than this curious problem of getting motivated, he said essentially nothing. He’s just leaving.

Aside from my admittedly partisan view of the team, the thing that most bothers me about this is what it says about the organization and/or Mr. Hargrove. The team insists that they didn’t push him, and in fact begged him to stay. What team wouldn’t? Finding a manager before the All-Star Break is just a nightmare. So that leaves us with Mr. Hargrove.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior. Unless the working conditions had become terrible, the situation so untenable, that he simply couldn’t walk into work, there’s just no way to justify leaving a job on 24 hours notice — especially a job like this. This job has annual contracts, a defined start and end to each year. What could possibly so bad that you couldn’t just grind it out for the balance of the year?

The most curious thing is that the team is hot. They’ve won seven straight. They are 11 games over .500 baseball. They’re on track for their best record in the last 5 years. He turned the team around, he’s just starting to look like a guy who knows what he’s doing. Then he quits. Ugh.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks. He’ll eventually tell somebody the true story. And I sure do hope that it’s because the management is totally screwed up and the organization is a mess. At least, there’d be a good reason.

Because if that’s not it, it shows an incredible lack of class, judgment, and guts. I’d like to believe he’s a better guy that that.

Update: After listening to his press conference, and post-game interview (they won, BTW), I’m convinced what happened was an ultimatum. I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Mr. Hargrove deeply objected to some move/trade (trading Ichiro? bringing back Ken Griffey Jr.?) and said, “if you do that, I’m outta here.” They did it, he’s gone.

After the trade deadline, and whatever move is announced, I’m sure we’ll hear Mr. Hargrove’s real reason for leaving. Ugh, again. I hate this kind of thing. It just ruins the entire organization’s morale…

Leadership Lessons from the “No” Meeting

Boeing 787

A good friend of mine is part of the senior management team for the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” project. As a student of project management, I love to catch up with him every now and then to discuss this unbelievably complex endeavor.

While I’ve been up-close-and-personal to tremendously large and complex projects (like Windows NT) involving thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of variables, nothing can compare to the development of a new commercial airplane.

Just imagine hundreds of thousand of parts, some larger than a football field, some smaller than the tip of a pen, and all being built (especially for this project) by suppliers located around the world. Stir in tens of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and oh yeah, don’t forget that peoples’ lives are at stake, and you have a recipe for a project management nightmare. And my friend’s job is a key position in the coordination and assembly of all these various parts. With the plane scheduled for its maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

With the plane scheduled for it’s maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

One of the things that Boeing and many other companies have long struggled with is delivering the best product they can build while simultaneously pleasing their customers. With previous airplanes, Boeing has let customers design their own interiors, galleys, bathrooms, overhead storage, seats, avionics (cockpit controls), and so on. The company essentially offered a shell that flew and let customers make the inside to suit their needs and taste. This explains why your carry-on fits in some overhead bins and not in others. Each airline chooses their own style.

This approach was remarkably customer-friendly, but it exponentially increased the complexity of building aircraft. With every airline choosing different configurations, each plane — even each bathroom, was custom made. At most they would see a customer order 10 or so planes with the same configuration. Imagine the pain that Boeing and its suppliers would be in never getting to scale up production for even the soap dispensers. And try to imagine the complexity of assembling and testing these incredibly complex machines, each one different from the next.

This was all supposed to end with the 777 model a few years ago. My friend was told repeatedly by management that customers would be given only a few choices to make for each item, and that configurations would be standardized. But then the sales team began selling the planes. And customers began expecting the same custom-built planes they always had in the past. The sales people had a hard time telling a customer who was placing a multi-BILLION dollar order, “no, you can’t have fries with that”.

Boeing 787 Assembly

Pretty soon, the number of bathroom configurations mushroomed from 4 to 40, and they were back where they started. The 777 is widely different when flown by United than when flown by British Airways. It’s a complex and difficult product to build and test. And it’s nowhere near as profitable as the company had hoped it would be.

For the 787 project, to quote Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!” This project is made significantly more complex by the choice of vendors quite literally from around the globe. Parts are being made in Italy, Japan, and all over the US. To allow customers to choose from an infinite variety of configurations would be a potential coordination disaster. So with this plane the company is being far stricter about forcing customers to stay “on catalog”.

In fact, my friend leads a weekly meeting they call the “no” meeting. Sales people from all around the globe call in trying to convince manufacturing to build just this one custom part for this very special customer. And the answer is always “no”. They push the sales person to escort the customer back to the catalog.

My friend leads a weekly “no” meeting.

And you know what? The customers are fine with that. The 787 is the fastest selling plane in commercial aviation history, with almost 600 orders before the thing has even left the ground [pun intended]. Turns out customers recognize the value of standardization in cost savings, quality, training, and time to delivery. They didn’t really need custom soap dispensers, they were just pushing as far as they could, because they could.

So far the “no” meeting has held, except for one special case. The galley carts (you know, those knee bashing things they drag up and down the aisle) are customized. You see, the airlines already have thousands of them, with each airline’s different from the next. Boeing just couldn’t tell them “no” in this case. So they’ve built adapters to make the standard galley accept your special cart. But they’re holding the line everywhere else.

What’s the leadership lesson here? The same lesson I preach about all the time: have a vision, stick to it, and sell the heck out of it. Your team will love you, and customers will beat a path to your door.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price. Now that they have decided to stick by their team, sales are up, morale is up, all signs are that the product will be better, and it certainly will cost less.

How can you learn from the experience of one of the largest manufacturers in the world handling a project a thousand times more complex than yours? The same thing: believe in your vision, your product, and your team. The customer isn’t always right, sometimes you need to stand up for your vision. Sure you need to recognize your own “galley cart” case, but most customers, like children, appreciate it when you show a little discipline.

Quick, Cut the Good People

Cover of the New Yorker Magazine
New Yorker – April 30, 2007

The current issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article this week entitled “It’s the Workforce, Stupid!”. The article highlights the short-sidedness of companies that layoff huge portions of their workforce in an effort to appease Wall Street and other critics.

Using the current examples of Citibank and Circuit City, the article takes the leadership of these companies to task for their recent layoffs. It points out that layoffs rarely have any real long term effect on the finances of the company. But, with CEO tenures running so short (around six years), it doesn’t matter because layoffs aren’t done for the long-term. They are done in hopes of a near-term stock lift to fatten the option-laden leadership team.

The article touches on the ham-handed way so many companies handle “downsizing”:

More recently, however, downsizing has become less a response to disaster than a default business strategy, part of an inexorable drive to cut costs. That’s why Circuit City can proclaim, “Our associates are our greatest assets,” and then lay off veteran salespeople because they earn fifty-one cents an hour too much.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue with downsizing. In my experience with layoffs, the problem is the effect they have on the team. There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

The problem is, as I have said repeatedly, that you can’t treat people like automatons. Constantly repeating “people are our most important asset” doesn’t make them feel any more valuable. In fact, it often makes them believe you think of them like the other assets — cash in the bank or that drill press over there.

The catch is that people can think. They draw their own conclusions about what you think is the most important part of the business. And it’s just really hard to send a good signal to person A while kicking person B out the door. It’s one thing if B was a loser who deserved to go. But more often than not, B just lost the layoff lottery, and A thinks “there but for the grace of god, goes me.”

In my experience, as a member of a leadership team trying to cut staff, as a member of a team with people being cut around me, and as a consultant trying to help people do it right, there is almost no way to cut people without causing collateral damage. There are only two ways to cut people for financial reasons: 1) voluntarily, where you ask people to self-select, or b) involuntarily, where management chooses the losers. This is a lose-lose situation.

In the first case, where you ask for volunteers, it should be obvious that the first people to leave are those with the best prospects for other employment — the good people. What remains are the losers who either can’t or won’t find work elsewhere. Not really the kind of team you upon which you want to build a turnaround strategy.

Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual.

In the latter case, even if you chose to jettison only the lesser performers, the remaining good people are scared about the potential next round of layoffs. Since they have the best alternative job prospects, they leave as fast as they can. Now you have little or no team left at all to effect the desired turnaround.

I’ve seen several examples of both cases up close and personal. Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual. And every scenario ended up getting far worse before they ever got back to anything resembling normal.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively. I say “imagine” because I’ve yet to see it be done this way. The leadership needs to be absolutely positive about the stable financial state they need to obtain. They need to calculate precisely how many people need to go, with complete confidence, so that they can do one, and only one, layoff. Repeated fits and starts toward the final workforce numbers are just the kind of thing that makes people panic.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively.

Then the management team needs to be stunningly frank with the employees, admitting the problem in detail, and drawing out the precise path to success. Like any other project they need to have a very clear, concise, and credible vision for the future, and be able to sell that vision to everyone. It’s vital that this vision is believable by everyone, as they will be almost infinitely skeptical.

Then, they need to individually go to the people they want to keep and sell them on that vision. Each “keeper” needs to understand why they are a key part of that future vision for success. Management can’t just be reassuring, the case has to be personal and credible. Remember, these people are just short of panic, they will be skeptical. They need to truly believe, so that they won’t bolt for the door.

Finally, the layoff needs to be done quickly — like tearing off a band-aid. Downsizing rumors ripen with age, and not in a good way. The mean-time to implosion is days, a couple of weeks weeks at most. Having something out there for a month or two just gives the good people time to polish their résumé. So once, it’s clear this has to be done, do it promptly.

This is a path to success with downsizing. But as I said, I’ve never seen it executed this way. Perhaps you have. I’d love to know about your experience with downsizing. Add your comment to the discussion to tell me about your take on it.

HT to Nancy for the pointer to the story

Proud Member of the Cult of Buffet

buffet.jpg
Warren Buffet

As I noted in this post, it’s annual report season again. I just opened my Berkshire Hathaway annual report and once again was not the least bit disappointed.

The Berkshire report confirms, as it does every year, why I am a card-carrying, stock-owning, unabashed member of the Cult of Warren Buffet.

The report, most of which can be found here, is such a wonderful read. Warren crafts his usual narrative about the state of the company, and it is with out a doubt the most readable annual report I’ve ever seen. Even though his note is long, at over 20 pages, there’s almost no business jargon, there’s no filler, and not a smidge of the spin so many reports are drowning in. I read every word — and every word of all the accompanying documents. All in one sitting on the airplane.

The report confirms again what a really great manager and leader he is. He simply does just about everything right, and does it with such frankness, charm, and sincerity, that I can’t help but gush over the guy.

It’s not that he’s perfect, and not that he’s magic. He’s made mistakes, and rubs a number of people the wrong way. But I think most of those people need to untwist their underwear and take some deep breathes (or a couple Valium).

Just like Warren, I’ll be straight with you: I’m a shareholder in Berkshire, and it’s just hard not to like the guy when the returns are so great. But in reality, that’s just a small part about what I think makes the guy so special.

Berkshire's Home Page
Berkshire Hathaway Home Page

Reading his report, or even looking at the Berkshire web site (seen at left), the first thing you notice is how upfront and frank the whole operation is. Who else has their link to their SEC filings as the fourth item on their home page, or includes the last 30 years of Chairman’s letters right in plain sight, or has their answer to the most controversial of their shareholder motions posted on the home page?

With most companies, this kind of stuff is buried in the filings, if it is available at all. Nothing is ever said that some spin doctor hasn’t crafted beyond intelligibility. And acknowledging mistakes? Well that just isn’t done, doncha know.

But with Warren, it’s all right there. In plain sight, in plain english, and it’s just the plain truth. After plowing through miles of other poop in other glossy annual reports, this one is like a cool ocean breeze. And there’s not a glossy picture of the CEO, or the Board, or the remarkably (intentionally?) diverse workforce in sight.

So stop reading me, go read Warren’s letter. Here’s the PDF file:

Then come back here, and tell me what you think.

How Not To Fire People

Alberto Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales

Once again, I’m going to risk taking this blog into the political realm by discussing a current political controversy. But, I promise, the emphasis here is not on the who, or the why, but rather the how.

Alberto Gonzales, the United States Attorney General, is in a lot of hot water lately about the firing of eight US Attorneys around the country. This action has stirred up a hornet’s nest of political noise, and has once again backed the Bush administration into a corner. No matter the outcome, there is a lot to be learned from how this was handled.

Let’s begin by stating that I firmly believe the Bush administration has every right to have whoever they want as US Attorneys. These are political appointments, and often turnover between administrations.

But there are ways to handle this problem, and ways to not handle it. With most incoming administrations, the typical approach to these political appointments is to fire the whole lot of them, then fill the positions with people you want. This has the great advantage that you get all your own team, and more importantly is it eminently fair. Nobody feels singled out because everyone was escorted out. Sure it feels harsh, but it is hard to argue with the process.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales took another approach. Drawn into the incessant politics that seem to permeate the Bush whitehouse, it appears that he yielded to the pressure of the machine. He picked only a few attorneys who had somehow angered the powers that be, and summarily fired them.

No job action should be a surprise.

The problem with this approach, aside from the overtly political nature of the process (a discussion I’ll leave to others) is that is was inherently unfair. Of course it was biased by the politics of the decision, but more importantly to our discussion, it violated my number one rule for job actions: no job action should be a surprise. As witnessed by the testimony of the fired attorneys on capitol hill a few days ago, clearly every one of these people was at least somewhat surprised by their termination.

All of the terminated attorneys received stellar performance reviews in the last several appraisals. They were praised for their hard work, their integrity, and their results. Then they walked in one day and — poof, they were fired.

Now this is just simply bad management. I’d like to recommend that Mr. Gonzales, the entire Bush administration, and you all read my FAQ on how to fire people correctly. It is a clear guide on how to move someone out when you’ve decided they need to go.

But to make matters worse, and perhaps a more devastating political issue than the suddenness of the firings, was the uniform denial of the reason for the action by the entire Bush clan. They denied the fact that they were political actions (which I will remind everyone the Bush administration has every right to do), but instead called them actions based on performance problems.

The facts do not back up a claim of performance issues.

Just as I note in the FAQ article, this is bad management because it’s not being honest and straightforward with the victim, and is likely to cause them to get upset. Especially when the facts do not back up a claim of performance issues. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the terminated employees cried “foul!” And it should come as even less of a surprise that an overtly political process handled poorly would become a firestorm.

Too bad, because if they had simply handled it right, we’d all be arguing about vastly more important things, like how to get out of a quagmire and who the next person to lead us there should be.

How Good Is Your “Saydar”?

Public Speaking

A key component of being a good leader is being able to speak to the team in a way that is engaging, informative, and motivating. Certainly, understanding the objectives, marshaling the resources, making good, timely decisions, and getting the job done are important aspects of leadership. But I was reminded yesterday how absolutely vital it is for leaders to be able to, often spontaneously, get up in front of the group and communicate effectively. This is far more difficult for some than others.

I’ve seen more than a few people who were technically competent, even brilliant, with deep understanding of the goals and how to accomplish them who simply fell apart when required to speak to the group. Most of them weren’t frightened by the challenge of public speaking, they were often even arrogant because they had such overwhelming command of the issues. No, they were just lousy at it.

And, as anyone skilled in public speaking will tell you, a major part of being a good speaker is knowing your audience and making sure you are talking about issues they care about, in ways they can understand. This is important not only for your preparations, in deciding what to say and how to say it, but even more importantly during the talk.

It is crucial that you pay close attention to more than just your talk, but also to your audience.

It is crucial that you pay close attention to more than just your talk, but also to your audience. You need to constantly ensure that you are engaging them, that they are understanding you, and that they are taking the journey along with you. This takes practice, and from what I can tell, it’s a skill not everyone has.

There was a continuing skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live about a woman (played by Rachael Dratch) who had no “gaydar” — she couldn’t identify stereotypical gay men and flirted with them fruitlessly [oops, really bad pun].

Many people have a similar problem with public speaking, a problem I call having no “saydar”. They can’t say anything while also respecting their audience. And there are many flavors of this malady.

Some are so frightened that they simply want to make it through this horrible experience. They have shut out all thoughts that there might be people listening and they become the “little engine that could” of public speaking: “I think I can, I think I can…”

Others are so enraptured with the sound of their own voice that they are oblivious to all other input. You can even see them sometimes close their eyes and talk as if a singer lost deep in a ballad. “Don’t bother me while I pontificate.”

Still others ignore the obvious signs that they are losing their audience and press on regardless. It seems that nothing less than an “Animal House” level food fight would disrupt them from their mission of getting through the material. “I’m going to say this, and you’re going to listen, dang it.”

They aren’t paying attention to the target

They all share the same problem: they aren’t paying attention to the target. They just aren’t watching the audience to see if people are restless, bored, distracted, or following the material. It’s really not that hard, and if you can manage to pick out several in the audience you know you are connecting with, it can even make speaking a lot of fun. But it does take effort, and more than a little selflessness.

So, I ask you: how good is your saydar?

How’s It Going Out There?

Sam
“Sam”

I was involved in a small business for a time. It wasn’t tiny, with $4+m in revenues and about 30 employees, but it was small in that it was started by a young entrepreneur and still had plenty of headroom for growth. The young leader was full of passion for the business but had a lot to learn about leading a team. It was fun (for a while) to watch and help this company and its leader grow.

The young owner, who I’ll call Sam, had never worked for anyone but himself, having literally started the business in his parents’ garage and grown it from there. As such, he hadn’t experienced what it felt like to be lead by someone he respected, to be mentored and supported, or to win as a member of a team. He also didn’t know what it feels like to have a jerk, an egotist, and/or a hypocrite for a boss.

Oh, he read a lot, and took great pride in the undergraduate business degree he had earned at the local college, so he thought he knew a lot about running a business. But having never really seen or felt good leadership put him at a real disadvantage. And reading the latest hot business book has sent more than a few inexperienced managers down a dark alley. Sam was no exception.

Having never really seen or felt good leadership put him at a real disadvantage.

One of Sam’s worst problems was the “do as I say, not as I do” syndrome. It’s not uncommon for young people thrust into leadership roles to have this problem, and it certainly is an issue for people without much management experience. And Sam had it bad.

You see, Sam was a stickler for the clock. People were supposed to be there from 8:00 to 5:00, and they had better be there. He instituted grave penalties for being as little as five minutes late without an “excused absence”. Employees were regularly singled out for punishment even though they had simply been at the mercy of Seattle’s notoriously unpredictable traffic. One employee even quit after several such episodes because he just couldn’t justify to his family tacking on 20 minutes of cushion to his 90-minute (one way) commute, just to avoid the silly penalties and threat of termination.

Now, I’m all for good and consistent work rules. And I think that letting some people get away with always coming in late is more than a little unfair, to both the organization and their co-workers. But the problem here was not with the rule, it was with Sam himself.

Sam just couldn’t be bothered with setting an example.

The issue is that Sam showed up whenever he wanted to. Rarely in before 9:00, and not infrequently wandering in at about 10:30, Sam just couldn’t be bothered with setting an example. He would swoop in long after everyone had been toiling for hours, demand to know when so-and-so showed up, and then fume over “what to do about that guy”. He never saw the irony in that, even when it was pointed out. And if he did, he was quick to remind you “who owned the place”, as if that somehow changed things.

Worse however was his end-of-day behavior. Sam was on a tight leash at home, with strict orders to be there by 5:30. Perhaps it was revenge for years of growing a business, with its late nights and weekends, or perhaps it was just the newborn at home. I don’t know the cause. But he was out of there like a shot before 5:00, even though the business was open until at least 6:00, and many stayed well into the night to catch up. Woe be the soul who stood in his way before 5:00, as wild horses couldn’t keep Sam in the office late, important company-wide projects notwithstanding.

And to take make it even worse, Sam was a micro-manager. He saw to it that everything in the company was under his thumb. So on the ride home, he would call each and every sales person on their cell phone and quiz them about the day’s activities, and to pressure them to do better. “How’s it going out there?” he would ask. And then poke and prod into every minute detail of the person’s day — until Sam rolled up into his driveway and the conversation would abruptly end.

Everyone dreaded these HIGOT calls.

Everyone dreaded these calls. Soon they got to be called the “HIGOT” (pronounced hig-gut) calls, for “how’s it going out there”. It was used as a noun, as in “did you get the higot today?” and “oh, my word, my higot was horrible!”. It became the talk of the company.

The irony of the higot was completely lost on Sam. That he would call and micro-manage people who were still hard at work while he was on his way home to his family rubbed people raw. It was made even worse by his insistence that certain things “get done before I get in there in the morning”, since everyone knew they would be in long before he was (whenever that would be). And he repeatedly went over the top by promising to stay late or show up on the weekend to work on some critical project, only to fail to show with no warning whatsoever.

The lesson I take from the higot is not that the leader has to be the first in and last out (although that doesn’t hurt), and it’s not even that you shouldn’t micro-manage (although you really shouldn’t).

The lesson is that everything you do as a leader sends a message.

The lesson is that everything you do as a leader sends a message. It’s far less about what you say than it is about what you do. If you want people to treat time as important, you should treat it as important too. If you want people to behave with integrity, you need to model that behavior. And if you want peoples’ respect, you have to earn it by what you do, not by what you say.

I’ll have a lot more on this aspect of leadership, but for the time being, simply remember it’s a great deal better to ask how it’s going when you’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the team.

Screaming Is For Losers

Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith
Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith

With the upcoming Super Bowl, a lot has been said about the two coaches: Indianapolis’s Tony Dungy and Chicago’s Lovie Smith. Yes, the big story is that they are both the first African American coaches to take a team to the Super Bowl. But I’m more fascinated with the fact that they are both great managers.

Friends from long ago, it is nice to see two truly “good guys” get to the top of their game. It’s even a little sad for one of them to have to lose on Sunday. Reading an item in the Wall Street Journal comparing the two of them with their calm and reasoned style to some screaming managers got me to thinking.

I’ve seen a lot of screaming managers. The pressure cooker world of high tech seems to attract the a-type personalities that end up as bosses who find volume as an easy substitute for reason. I’ve seen numerous cases of managers (I can’t say “leaders”) who use intimidation, threats, and personal attacks in their regular daily lives.

Steve Ballmer
Steve Ballmer

In fact, I’ve worked directly for one of the world’s great screamers, Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer. He is legendary for loud volume, having once required hospitalization for vocal chord damage after an especially vigorous affair. I’ve witnessed him at his best (a fantastically energizing and motivating speaker) and his worst (reducing senior managers to tears during the semi-annual business reviews). Steve regularly barging through my door, fully on fire and with no regard to my current situation, was a key factor in my choice to leave Microsoft.

Now, I don’t begrudge Steve, or anyone, the right to get animated and excited when things are going wrong. Unfortunately, Steve, when in a tough spot, is inclined to take things to a personal level that simply crosses the line. He goes from criticizing the idea or the results, and moves to things designed to hurt the person. Although Bill Gates is famous for saying “that’s the stupidest f&*%ing thing I’ve ever heard”, it is more Steve’s style to say “you are the stupidest person I’ve ever met, who hired you?” It costs dearly in respect on both sides, and never serves to motivate anyone for very long.

The problem is that yelling and intimidation work… in the short term.

The problem is that yelling and intimidation work… in the short term. Much like what falsified financial statements, “stuffing the channel”, and keeping secrets do for business, yelling and intimidation do similar things for organizations. They work for a while, people do scurry around frantically to avoid a follow-on beating. But soon they tire of the abuse, and before long, they move on or shut down completely and resign themselves to the pain. Neither makes for a great team.

This brings me back to Dungy and Smith. As the WSJ article noted:

Both believe they can get their teams to compete more fiercely and score more touchdowns by giving directives calmly and treating players with respect.

This is a pattern I have seen time and again. Calmer, reasoned, thoughtful leaders get better results, have better loyalty with much lower turnover, and have better luck hiring people (word gets around). People enjoy coming to work, and don’t live like abused children in fear of the next beating. They are happy to give extra effort for people who they respect and know respect them. And undoubtedly, if given enough of a chance, they make the whole organization more successful. Perhaps they even take it to the top of their game.

A great leader is going to win the Super Bowl on Sunday

There will be plenty of screaming on Sunday, with more than a few fans coming to work hoarse on Monday. But that won’t be the case for Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith. The good news is, a great leader is going to win the Super Bowl on Sunday. The bad news is we don’t know yet which one it will be. I’ll be cheering for them both.

Update: And the winner is Tony Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts. Congrats to them all.