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.

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.

Why Toyota is Winning

Toyota Logo

I’ve had a busy week for interactions with the service industry. Three different cars spent time in the shop, and a beloved family pet spent his final days in a pair of vet clinics. I’ve had far too many chances to see what makes these businesses tick.

Last things first, late Tuesday night we rushed my son’s pet rat, a remarkably cute, friendly, and lovable guy, to the vet emergency room for his final bout with chronic lung disease. The emergency room, although quite a drive away, was a beautiful facility, with consummately professional people. It was breathtakingly expensive, but the care was great as they stabilized him.

Rocky the Rat

The next morning I rushed him to his regular vet for what turned out to be his last time. That vet’s office is more what you envision, a tired little building with worn fixtures and plenty of old pictures of patients everywhere. The people, however, were just amazing, and they offered the best possible experience for us in this amazingly difficult time. Two very different experiences, but with similar results — great service from people who really cared. Although I wish the latter clinic was as nice and up to date as the specialty center, clearly the people didn’t let that effect their attitude in the least.

With the cars, however, it was a very different story, offering stark contrasts. The three cars are literally from around the world: a German sport sedan (BMW), a Japanese small SUV (Lexus), and an American monster SUV (GMC). A pretty interesting cross section of the car business, and this week, it offered me a great chance to see their customer service experience in close-up.

BMW Logo

The BMW was in for service a week or two ago, but it needed to return on Monday. It needed new tires (after all of 20,000 miles) so I went to Discount Tire, and was in an out at a respectable price in just over an hour. Not bad. The car however, was nagging about “service due”. It had just been in for service. As I was near, I stopped in to ask the dealer for assistance. The dealership is being completely reconstructed from the ground up, and it is a mess. The service department is in portable buildings. There is construction activity and confusion everywhere. But the service guy promptly looked it up, turns out one of the many “resets” that should’ve been done on my last service wasn’t, and it was handled cheerily and in less than 10 minutes.

The dealership is being completely reconstructed and it is a mess.

But the original service episode was a different story. These new cars don’t go in on a regular basis, every 5,000 miles would be too easy. No, they tell you when to bring it in. So one day, it started saying “service due”. Great, I promptly called for an appointment — which they could only do three weeks out. When I arrived I received a minor chastising for being overdue on my service… After I defended myself they explained that the dealership overhaul was largely to expand the service department and this would no longer be an issue.

GMC Logo

The GMC experience was from a different planet. I have always maintained that car well, and now that it is getting long in the tooth (~100k miles) I wanted to get it fully up to shape. Over the last couple of months I have thrown plenty of good money at this car: thousands for extensive bodywork and paint (to make up for years of abuse by teenagers), and at least four trips and $7,000 to the dealer for a variety of ills. They didn’t get one fixed the last time, so I was in again on Thursday for another shot at that issue.

A crew of employees who seemed to want to be anywhere but there.

The dealer is an old-fashioned car dealer, on the row of car dealers that so many towns have. It is a cramped, ugly, and tired building with carpet that is five years past “worn”, fixtures that were outdated from day one, and a crew of employees who seemed to want to be anywhere but there. My service rep is a fine young man who tries exceptionally hard to make due in these surroundings and tried hard to make the experience as painless as the fourth trip in a month to a car repair facility could be. But the promised rental car was not there (I was stuck) and nothing much softens the blow of a second try at fixing the same problem — out of warranty. I arranged a pick-up and was glad to be gone.

Lexus Logo

Then, today, the Lexus went in for it’s 60,000 mile checkup. The service facility is a mile or so from the dealership, a temporary measure as they build the Taj Ma-Dealership, an almost unbelievable structure being built on the site of the former city hall. And yet the service facility isn’t temporary buildings, no, it’s a beautiful, fully Lexus-branded edifice. It has tile floors, great lighting, and a row of clean, windowed offices facing the service drive. I was greeted promptly by a pair of smiling young men, one to take the car, and one to help me. We decided on the service regimen in his private office, where he genteelly tried to upsell me to over $1000 in service. I declined, but he took it well, and I was promptly off and being whisked away in a private shuttle for me — back to the GMC dealer to pick up the truck.

The clean, efficient, and service-heavy Lexus dealership

It was then that the contrast was so clear. The broken down GMC dealership with last year’s Buick Rainier (small SUV) sporting a $5000 mark down sticker on display, a crew beaten into submission by their environment, and customers who seemed just as depressed vs. the clean, efficient, and service-heavy Lexus dealership nearly beating customers away with a stick.

People in the car business (an industry I’m quite familiar with) say time and again it’s about the products. But it’s not that simple. For the money the GMC is a fine product, I’d buy another and be pleased with the cost-value equation. No, it’s about investment, organizational culture, and attention to detail.

No, it’s about investment, organizational culture, and attention to detail.

Toyota (the Lexus parent company) makes these investments, hones the culture, and sweats the details. BMW wants to do the same, but never seems to measure up. And GM just further calcifies. For me this contrast was drawn ever so vividly this past week Never was it so clear why Toyota is taking the world by storm and Rick Wagoner of GM is trying to keep his job and that of 325,000+ of his employees.

Tough Calls, Timing, and Trouble

View of Snow

It’s been a very rough winter for us here in the Puget Sound area. As I have noted previously, we’ve suffered wind, snow, rain, sleet, all resulting in power outages, school closings, and on and on. At times it feels like we’re only missing pestilence to round out the collection. Looking out at the snow makes us doubt the truth of global warming, no matter how “inconvenient”.

It has been a tough winter also on the school administrators. Our big power outage in December came during the holiday, but would’ve meant more than a week off school. Since then, we’ve had two major snow storms with several days off. As I write, our school has closed for the sixth straight day, as more snow has fallen just in time for the morning commute. The teachers are in a panic, missing a week in their curriculum can’t be fun. And ideas for making it up range from canceling spring break to additional time in the summer.

It has been a tough winter on the school administrators.

This all points out how hard it is to make the decision to close a school. There are dozens of dependencies to consider, including buses, teachers, new young student drivers, and angry parents who either don’t want to drive or don’t want to miss work. The pressure to get the school work in while keeping people safe makes for a continuous load of tough calls to make.

This morning was an especially tough call to make for our school head. At 5:00, the usual time when these calls are made, the predicted snow wasn’t here. Kids had been off since last Wednesday, when he made a quick and controversial call to close while other schools did not. So the pressure to stay open today was intense.

Then the snow came. Schools all around closed, even the stalwarts. And yet, the snow was supposed to stop any minute now, so how to decide? As it got later, the early students and teachers started arriving. But it still was snowing. Parents were calling. What to do? Well, he closed at the last minute (7:10 am), with students arriving, plans for the day long since decided. It’s a mess. Not only was last Wednesday’s call controversial, but today’s is sure to be as well. I can hear the phone ringing from 10 miles away.

How does this effect you? Well it points out some things you already know. Making decisions is never easy. Second guessing is. And the timing of decisions is often a no-win situation. Decide too early, you don’t have all the data. Decide too late, and the wheels may already be in motion.

Lay the groundwork for decisions well in advance.

It all points out the value of laying the groundwork for decisions well in advance. If you have a good vision for your project or organization, many of these kinds of decisions are easier to make. And there are a number of areas where you can predict the kind of difficulties you may run into, and “pre-make” the decisions well outside the panic of the crisis. That’s why I recommend you do the homework for a good People Strategy. And you can apply this same technique to a number of other areas.

I’m not sure if a clear “school closure” guideline policy would have helped today. But I do know that time and again in business, having a clear vision, spending the time to be prepared, and addressing predictable issues long before they arise, all combine to make you a better leader.

Home Depot Gives Nardelli the Boot

Home Depot Logo

I have written more than a little about Home Depot and its CEO Bob Nardelli. From their top-heavy “Culture Change Offensive” (which I found offensive here), and the silly army mentality Nardelli tried to force down everyone’s throat (and got stuck in my craw here), to Bob’s stunning pay package (which rubbed me raw here), and even his autocratic shareholders meeting (which I recounted here) Nardelli has provided plenty of fodder for these pages. Well, it seems that the company and the board have finally come to their senses.

ATLANTA, Jan 03, 2007 — The Board of Directors of The Home Depot and Bob Nardelli announced today that they have mutually agreed that Nardelli would leave his position as The Home Depot’s chairman, president & CEO and as a Director effective January 2, 2007.

In other words: “get out… like yesterday”. Clearly the company simply tired of all the bluster and noise that went along with Bob’s “Army Mentality”, and the corporate results have been lackluster since he arrived. And as I said in this piece, the mood in the stores is rancid. It is a wonderful sign that the company saw the insidious effect Nardelli had, and chose to put an end to it.

But, the company didn’t completely come to their senses. They continued to give Nardelli completely ridiculous payouts even as he exits in disgrace:

Nardelli and the Company have agreed in principle to the terms of a separation agreement which would provide for payment of the amounts he is entitled to receive under his pre-existing employment contract entered into in 2000. Under this agreement, Nardelli will receive consideration currently valued at approximately $210 million (including amounts which have previously been earned or vested).

Holy Cow! Even in the face of amazingly generous pay packages to CEOs, this one is a stunner. This means that Nardelli has received, since becoming CEO of Home Depot, a whopping $400+ million in compensation! During the same time, HD (the stock) has gone from a high of around $70 to the mid-30s.

And worse, much of this is clearly a golden handshake, or simply “go away” money. It is optional, the board didn’t have to agree to it, but just wanted him out so badly they were willing to pay almost anything to have him go away:

This consideration will include a cash severance payment of $20 million, the acceleration of unvested deferred stock awards currently valued at approximately $77 million and unvested options with an intrinsic value of approximately $7 million, the payment of earned bonuses and long-term incentive awards of approximately $9 million, the payment of account balances under the Company’s 401(k) plan and other benefit programs currently valued at approximately $2 million, the payment of previously earned and vested deferred shares with an approximate value of $44 million, the payment of the present value of retirement benefits currently valued at approximately $32 million and the payment of $18 million for other entitlements under his contract which will be paid over a four year period and will be forfeited if he does not honor his contractual obligations.

The bulk of this is sickening… I’m sure there were clauses in his contract that would have allowed the company to fight most of this. I haven’t seen it, but I’d be shocked if it was all carved in stone. I’m betting they didn’t have to accelerate his unvested and/or deferred options, they didn’t have to buy out his retirement plans, they just did it to get rid of him.

I applaud Home Depot for ridding themselves of this jerk.

While I applaud Home Depot for ridding themselves of this jerk, I wish they had the backbone not only to fire him, but to not pay his blackmail too. But I’m sure the company is better off without him. The markets surely agree, the stock is up over 3% today alone on the news.

Blinded by the Light

Alan Mulally and Bill Ford
Mulally and Ford at the Coronation Announcement

The Wall Street Journal had a marvelous article [ed: unfortunately subscription-only] about the turnaround Alan Mulally is trying to make at Ford. I have written about this before (see this post here), but put simply, I am a huge fan of Mr. Mulally. He did great things at Boeing, and from what I can tell from this article, he’s off to a great start at Ford too.

The article goes on to describe in detail how Mulally is analyzing a business he is admittedly new to, and how he’s working on his plan for change at the company.

The fate of this automotive icon rests on the aggressive plans of Mr. Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who has spent his career outside the auto industry. His emerging agenda calls for Ford to plow through “gut-wrenching” change to achieve profitability by 2009.

From what I can see, he’s hitting all the right notes by focusing on brand overlap, silly inconsistencies and waste between brands, and overall efficiency. Again, this is a guy who has moved mountains at one of the largest employers in the country, I’m sure he can make strides here. “‘I’ve seen this movie before,’ Mr. Mulally told his new executive team when he took over Oct. 1.” I just wish he could teach our president a thing or two about analyzing situations and facing ugly facts, but I digress…

One of the more interesting notes in the article however, very much caught my eye.

In the executive suite he shares with Chairman Bill Ford, Mr. Mulally says he asked Mr. Ford why he hadn’t integrated the company. He says Mr. Ford agreed that integration was desirable, but told him it was difficult. Every time Ford had considered forcing integration, a new hit product — such as the Explorer, Taurus or F-series truck — would come along and propel profitability without tough changes, explained the fourth-generation Ford leader.

To steal from Mr. Mulally, I’ve seen this movie before too. I have watched more than a few companies put off changes they knew they needed to make because they were blinded by their success. And the more bright the light from the current success, the more blinded they became to the obvious issues. It’s important to realize this not only applies to products and/or projects, but also to people. We tend to overlook the worst part of peoples’ behavior when they are having success as well.

The more bright the light from the current success, the more blinded they became.

I saw it quite a bit at Microsoft. It is no secret that the Windows team recently made some major changes in leadership that were long overdue. Those changes were put off time and again by the product’s stunning profitability and the fear of killing the golden goose. There are a dozen more, less public, examples of products that were off-target and in need of correction, but still creating revenues that would finance even the most outrageous debacles.

We also had managers who were simply terrible, and yet were continually promoted or rewarded for their results. I discuss this here too, but success postpones many needed HR actions at Microsoft and elsewhere. I even wrote in the performance review of one jerk who worked for me that he “is being removed from a supervisor position and being returned to an individual contributor role, and should never again be allowed to supervise others.” He was recently mentioned in a national publication as a potential future CEO of the company.

Don’t let success blind you to the changes you need to make.

The point of all this is that, just like dental hygiene, auto maintenance, and many other things, just because you seem to be OK today doesn’t mean your gut instinct that things need to be fixed is wrong. Don’t let success blind you to the changes you need to make. And don’t, please, make that jerk your CEO.

Leading a Prepared Organization

We live in the Pacific Northwest that, like most regions of the world, has natural disasters to worry about. Every region of the world has some calamity on its potential horizon. Be it hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, even plagues of locusts, it seems clear that no place is without something to worry about.

Here we live in a place of splendid beauty that carries the risks right with the beauty. We have majestic mountains that are active volcanoes. We have a seashores that threaten tsunamis. We have a landscape littered with earthquake faults. And, as the “Evergreen State” we have a whole lot of trees. All of this is beautiful, and dangerous. This week, we got bitten by the beauty of the trees.

Trees over Power Lines

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week we got a little warm-up storm with winds in the 30+ mph range with gusts to 60. Some trees were knocked over, a parking lot of my children’s school saw one totally flatten four cars and damage several others. But that was apparently just the semi-finals.

On Thursday night late, we got a whopper of a storm. Winds at the coast were over 100 — category 1 hurricane force; we saw winds in the 60+ range, with gusts that had to be 80+ mph. The storm hit overnight (as they always seem to do) and plunged virtually the whole region from Oregon to British Columbia into darkness. We’ve been dealing with the carnage ever since.

We live out of town a fair bit, and we seem to lose power at the drop of a hat. We always go dark before everyone, and get the lights back long after everyone else. This time was no different, we lost power at 5pm on Thursday, as the storm just began. And we have no power yet, three days later. Given everything they tell us, it will be at least Wednesday or Thursday (a week!) before we see power again. Traveling about yesterday it seemed like a war zone, with every other power pole broken or with a tree dangling over it. The wires are draped like spaghetti, with insulators and transformers scattered asunder. It appears as though Puget Sound Energy will have to rebuild the lines completely from scratch. So while we see power coming on around the region, our wait is sure to be a long one.

But hey, you say, wait a minute. How are you writing this blog entry? Are you at an internet cafe, or a friend’s house that has regained power? Nope. We lost power for only 30 seconds, and never lost TV or internet connectivity. We are warm, dry, and only moderately inconvenienced. You see, we were prepared. We have an automatic natural gas fired generator that powers much of the house. We have also have a gas stove, heat, hot water, even clothes dryer. The oven and A/C don’t work (not that we need A/C), and the outside Christmas lights are off. But we can watch TV (satellite) and all the other things.

Today, I’m feeling pretty darn smug.

I was ridiculed for the generator when we first installed it years ago. Neighbors thought their gas powered portable units were just fine. When I upgraded it two months ago, it was seen by many (including my loving wife) as a needless expense. Today, I’m feeling pretty darn smug. My neighbors are standing in gasoline lines and filling tanks every couple of hours to get enough power to heat, refrigerate, and light a room or two. We’re running the dishwasher and doing the laundry. They’re reading by flashlight waiting for the cable TV and internet to return. We’re watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and surfing the internet on the T1 line.

So what does this have to do with you and your leadership? The point is that preparations like this are wildly unpopular when they are done. They cost a lot of money. They take a lot of time. They take thinking about things that aren’t in the line of daily business, and are, frankly, pretty darn unpleasant to think about. People charged with making the preparations will complain, the accountants will wince, and the bottom line will take some kind of a hit. They all want to play the odds, and they all think it’s overkill. It takes a very deep kind of strength and will power to make it happen. And that is leadership.

Then something happens, and you get a chance to feel awfully smart. It may be that the organization survives when it might not have. It may be that it simply gets back on line faster than others. Or it may be simply that you handle something with relative ease that others need superhuman effort to survive. Whatever it is, it makes it all worthwhile.

What is your calamity, and are you even remotely prepared?

So I ask you: what is your calamity, and are you even remotely prepared? Is it a natural disaster like earthquake, fire, flood, or wind? Is it a business calamity like a major data loss? Is it something more personal, like the death or departure of key players? Whatever it is, have you really planned? Have you spent the time and energy necessary to make it really survivable at a level that is not only tolerable, but a real competitive advantage? Do you have the will and strength of leadership to make it a priority? It’s never a bad time to think this all out.

Oh, and before you ask, yes I back up everything on all my computers. Every night. And store a backup off site. I’ve had a disaster and never would suffer that again. Yep, I’m feeling pretty smug about that too.

Beware the Casual Thought

Hotel Bathroom
The Scene of the Crime

One of the things I hear so often from leaders I’ve worked with is how quickly a casual comment of theirs got blown out of proportion. It’s almost as if the simple, off-hand remark they made a couple of months ago grew legs and got a life of its own.

They discover someone working on something unexpected and ask “why the heck are you doing that?” And the junior manager will say “Because you told us to. Remember back in the bathroom at the conference last May when you said you wished someone would tackle that problem? Well I built a team of 30 and we’ve been working on it ever since.”

In stunned horror they suddenly realize that a tiny offhand comment became a project. They can’t be wildly upset, after all, it took a very proactive manager to get wind of a problem and work so hard to resolve it. But they can’t understand how anyone would interpret that simple, casual remark as a directive.

They can’t understand how anyone would interpret that simple, casual remark as a directive.

There are two kinds of common overreactions to this problem: 1) the leader never speaks without written notes ever again, or 2) they implement ridiculous controls on the organization so that it never happens again. As in most things, however, the best result is somewhere in the middle. After all, you can’t become the kind of stiff mannequin who never utters a casual comment ever again, that just stifles the whole organization. And you certainly don’t want to build a culture where everyone is in fear of acting in a proactive way. That’s the exact opposite of the organization you need to be working toward.

I recommend that you never overreact when you discover these kinds of rogue, skunk-works projects that you inadvertently kicked off. Do not chastise anyone, especially not in public for this. People absolutely need to feel empowered to take on organizational issues on their own. You certainly don’t want to stifle this kind of proactive creativity. If you must stop the project, pull the manager aside later and quietly explain that, while it may be an issue for the organization, it certainly isn’t a priority right now, and you definitely didn’t mean for them to go off and work on it. You need to apologize for misleading them (I know you didn’t , but they think you did), and you need to handle the situation with delicacy, and perhaps a little humor.

At the other end of the spectrum, please, please, don’t put in draconian controls to require every tiny little project in the organization to meet with your approval. This kind of micro-management kills organizations. Each level of an organization needs to feel like it can work to solve the important issues that fall in its realm. Putting up hurdles and passing judgment on everything anyone does just makes life miserable for everyone, including you.

More important is a clearly stated vision for the organization.

More important and more effective than this level of micro-management is a clearly stated vision for the organization. This vision includes organizational priorities that are so well known as to be second nature to all, including that junior manager in the washroom. With things that clear and obvious, they will recognize the casual remark as just that, a passing fancy that was never intended to initiate any serious effort or action.

I’ve seen this happen so often, it is easily one of the most common issues for leaders to face, especially new leaders. I’ll discuss more of this later, but it is extremely common for new leaders to not understand all the power that comes with their position. Unspoken and unwanted reverence for their every word is just one side effect that new leaders often never knew was coming with the job.

As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for, you may actually get it.

Are You the Elephant in the Room?

Elephant Face

One of the toughest parts of being a leader is walking the line between democracy and fascism. When it comes to the essential elements of your mission, where does consensus become chaos, where does direction become dictatorship? This is one of the most important questions of style managers face.

And the answer simply isn’t clear. I can think of examples where charismatic despots lead teams through innumerable obstacles to great success. I can also think of cases where expert consensus builders worked their magic to make a team of hundreds behave as one. There are many paths to success to be sure.

Clearly some leaders are just naturally better at one role than another, and they simply don’t know how to be a despot or a democrat. You may feel that you can’t be one or the other, so why even consider the issue? Just do what you do best.

But this is more than a question of style, and it’s more than about playing to your strengths. There are times in every project when you need to be one or the other, and you need to both recognize when these cases occur, and find a way to play the appropriate role.

One of the most common situations where I’ve seen managers struggle with this balance is in meetings. The team gathers together to consider an important question, to entertain ideas from across the spectrum, and try to work out the best solution. But before the meeting really even gets going, the leader chimes in with their thoughts on the subject and kills the whole party. They may do it because they think they are just “priming the pump”, to get the conversation started. They may think they are just “tossing their ideas in to the mix” for all to consider. Or they may do it because they are frustrated at the ideas presented so far. It doesn’t really matter… what they have done is kill the whole conversation.

What they have done is kill the whole conversation

What so many leaders don’t see is how this behavior, as innocent and well-intentioned as it may have been, and as delicately as it may have been presented, shuts down people on the margins. When the leader of a group expresses their thoughts on a subject, three kinds of bad things happen: 1) the sycophants come running to the front praising the wisdom from on high, 2) the timid rush to the corners, hiding from the light, and 3) those that may have a different opinion fear risking their standing in the organization by contradicting the leader. None of these are good for genuine discourse.

I know, I know, I can hear you now: “But I said it just as an expression of my opinion! I prefaced it with ‘this is just my thoughts on this, but…’ I laughed and smiled when I said it, for gosh sakes!” I’m terribly sorry, but all that doesn’t matter. You’re the boss. Years and years of conditioning have told people that what you say, goes. All protestations to the contrary not withstanding, by expressing your opinion, you are guiding the discussion. And, more importantly, shutting off input from valuable members of the organization.

[Side note: a similar issue is how, inevitably, the casual thought of the leader gets translated into an edict, and develops a life of its own (see my post here on this topic).]

I’ve also hear managers tell me: “well, if they are too meek to express their opinion in this forum, then they and their opinion aren’t worth much.” Hogwash, that’s just the bully in you talking. In my experience, some of the most insightful people are those who sit out of the direct line of fire and have the luxury to observe from a distance. After all, still waters run deep. You need to seek out these people. You need to get some way to hear them out, whether in this kind of forum or in a more comfortable one-on-one setting.

The minute you express an opinion, the conversation changes

The only real way to insure that you hear everything is to be quiet. Remember that the minute you express an opinion, on any subject (even which donuts are best), the conversation changes. Wait until the room has had its say, wait for a lull in the conversation, then offer up your thoughts — still including all the disclaimers, prefaces, and smiles you can muster.

Even then, there’s a risk. You need to be sure you don’t come off like Judge Wapner on The People’s Court: “well I’ve heard your arguments, now here’s my decision.” Save that tone until the very end, when a consensus was not reached, and a decision had to be made. Then it’s OK to be the boss. But until then, remember that the only thing you hear after you speak is what people think you want to hear.

So ask yourself, when I have a team meeting for the purposes of airing opinions, am I the elephant in the room? Does it always seem like things come out the way I said? Did I really hear from all corners of the room? I bet not…

Be Not Distracted

Annoying Cell Phone Man

I had some errands in town this morning, so I stopped in the local diner for breakfast. Nice, pleasant place with a good veggie omelet. Unfortunately today, it was not quiet. Twice, neighboring people took calls on their cell phone and loudly discussed the most personal of business, for the benefit and annoyance of the entire restaurant.

I now know quite a bit about “Jack”, the local car mechanic, and his personal financial situation, his financial relationship with his wife, the pending trade-in of his toolbox, how much it’s worth, how much his new one is going to cost, the delivery dates, his weekly payment, and on and on. This incredibly loud conversation itself became the conversation at a half-dozen other booths. And Jack was oblivious.

The other conversation was both briefer and more discreet, although I know when to go rob the person’s house today, as both he and his wife will be gone at a meeting.

All of this made me think back to my post last week about the spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard. I wonder just how much of the leaking that went on at HP was of this variety — not intentional, not malicious, just inadvertent. I wonder just how hard it really is to get extremely confidential information these days, without even really trying.

Wouldn’t the time and energy have been better spent on fixing the problems with the company?

But most of all, I wonder if Ms. Dunn and the others on the HP board spent a great deal of money, time, energy, and corporate focus on the silly witch hunt for the leakers. How much did it really matter if HP’s laundry was out in the open? How much did it really damage the company if people knew that the company board was concerned about the performance of the CEO and wanted to fix it? In reality, wouldn’t the time and energy have been better spent on fixing the problems with the company rather than the quixotic hunt for the source of the leaks?

This sends me back around to the whole issue of focus. The HP board was facing a major concern over company performance, and just like me in the diner this morning, they were distracted by another issue. It was an issue that may have seemed to matter at the time, but in reality, it was a sideshow. Someone, somewhere on the board or in the HP leadership chain should have said “hey wait, this isn’t the real issue, let’s get back to that”.

That is hard, though. Very hard. Keeping your focus on the main issues is both one of the main characteristics of great leaders, and lack of it is the downfall of many failed ones. George Bush is single-minded, and that gets some of his highest praise (not from me… but that’s another issue…). Bill Gates is excellent at it, something I’ve seen personally. And, in my experience, we all could use practice at it. I know I’m guilty of being easily distracted, more often than I’d like to admit.

You need to have a regular practice of asking yourself “am I focused on the right things?”

So how do you do it? You need to have a regular practice of asking yourself “am I focused on the right things?” You need to have some formal list of priorities (a “to-do” list on a yellow pad, an electronic task list, whatever) that is carefully ordered and regularly updated. And you need to encourage those around you to speak up and say “ahem… aren’t we supposed to working on this?” It takes hard work, diligence, and formal processes.

Not getting distracted will make you a better leader, and will benefit not only you, but the organization as a whole. Put this one at the top of your priority list.