How’s It Going Out There?

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.