Author Archives: Lee Zukor

About Lee Zukor

Product development and user experience web start-up guy, Minneapolis songwriter and music lover, proud dad and husband

Great teams want to win. Great leaders make it possible.

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I was just a few months into my new position as Director of eCommerce and, although the team was delivering lots of work, the work itself was underwhelming: shortcuts were being taken, errors were being made, and deadlines were being missed. And while members of the team told me they were overworked, I was pretty sure none of them was working more than a 40-hour week, and a few were working less.

My first thought was that my team was lazy, that they’d gotten away with putting in less than a full effort in the past and needed to recommit to their jobs. Wasn’t it obvious that if they put in more hours they’d get more work done? In an attempt to get more hours out of the team, I put a few carrots in place (a free meal, a small bonus) and a few sticks (unpleasant meetings, the threat of disciplinary action). Neither worked. At the end of my rope, I called a team meeting.

The meeting started with lots of venting, as you’d expect: the job was hard, there was too much work and not enough people, the team was under-appreciated. I wondered if pulling everyone together was a bad idea. And then, suddenly, one of my employees said something so simple – and so perfect – that I’ve literally thought about it every day since:

“We come to work each day to win,” he said, “but we always lose.”

The rest of the team nodded their heads in agreement, and I dug in. When I pressed them to describe what it meant to win, they said they felt like they were on a treadmill – no matter how many hours they worked, they could never keep up. And if, miraculously, they could keep up with their workload, their only reward was to do it all over again the next week. What’s more, “keeping up” wasn’t something the team could rally around. They wanted to do great work, improve the process, and add value to our company and our customers. They wanted to be proud of not just the quantity of their work, but the quality as well.

The team wasn’t working longer hours because couldn’t see the point – no matter how many hours they worked, they couldn’t win.

#Winning
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day”? In it, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right. The movie works because every time Murray’s character wakes up in the morning we see small improvements in his behavior – we can see that he’s learning – so we know he’ll eventually be waking up next to Andie MacDowell. For too many of our teams, there’s no difference between one day and the next. They can’t see forward progress, and a happy ending seems like an impossibility. They want their chance to wake up next to Andie MacDowell, but their experience tells them they never will.

As I mentioned, the eCommerce team above defined winning as doing high quality work, improving the process, and adding value to our company and our customers. But leadership at the company we worked for defined winning for the team as simply keeping up with their aggressive workload. Who was right? The team was, of course.

When a company sets a low bar for its employees and teams, the best employees – the kind you want to keep – have just two choices: set the bar higher or move on. Too often a company takes the view that repetitive, operational roles are best staffed by people who just want to put in their time. Even these roles need a version of winning.

Winning means different things to different teams, but in my experience working with lots of them, forward progress is a must. If a team isn’t moving forward, it can’t possibly be winning.

Before you can set your team up to win, you need to know what winning means to them. If you don’t know, ask them.

The definition of insanity
For teams that feel like they’re living “Groundhog Day,” you need to find a way to show forward progress. That way, even if your team continues to experience the operational pain of a never-ending task, they can start to get a sense that tomorrow’s problems will be different from today’s. You know that line about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

For the team above, that meant doing a deep dive into their process and tools, holding weekly meetings to discuss progress, creating a shared vision of success, and resetting expectations across the organization.

Work hard and show progress
The risk of gathering information and committing to helping your team win is that they’ll hold you accountable for making it happen. But you don’t really have a choice, do you? It’s your job. One of your most critical responsibilities is to make sure your employees can do their best work every day.

This is really hard to do! Articulating what it means to win is one thing, but setting your team up to win is something else. Often, the things that get in the way are expensive, enormous, complicated, and largely out of your control. Fortunately, your team doesn’t expect you to be a superhero. Your job isn’t to fix everything immediately, it’s to work hard and show progress.

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No more clockwatching
At the start of this post, I mentioned that my team wasn’t putting in more hours even though they were falling behind in their work. This makes complete sense. Until a team buys into their goals and approach – until they think they can win – they’re unlikely to invest more than the absolute minimum amount of energy and time required.

Once your team believes there’s a connection between their effort and their success, their work will be better, they’ll be happier, and they’ll see the benefits of working harder. They’ll stop worrying about how many hours they’re putting in, and you will too.

A new hope
The conversation described above was more than five years and several jobs ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The employee who made the comment about winning is still one of the most valuable employees I’ve ever had – he’s been on every one of my teams since.

I continued to work with that eCommerce team for another year or so, and although we never replaced their software or hired as many people as they wanted, we made a lot of progress. Within a few months, I’d replaced their manager, introduced new KPIs and reporting, gained organizational alignment, and scheduled regular meetings to help the team understand the context of their work and think more strategically. I didn’t fix everything, but I was able to show progress. The team started making fewer errors, taking pride in their work, and even working longer hours.

Finally, the team had hope. Winning wasn’t going to be easy, but maybe, if we all worked hard enough, it was possible.

“Leadership by tweets” is still not a thing

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This is from the New York Times on December 3, 2017, but it could be from almost any news source on almost any day this year:

In a series of early-morning tweets, Mr. Trump said the F.B.I.’s standing was now the “worst in history.” The attack was one of the harshest in a generation on an independent agency that two days earlier had helped secure a guilty plea and a pledge of cooperation from the president’s first national security adviser.

Yesterday Mr. Trump took to Twitter to criticize the F.B.I., but unless you’ve been living under a big, heavy rock wearing noise canceling headphones and a sleep mask, yesterday’s news didn’t surprise you. Heck, yesterday’s news wasn’t even news. Tweeting whatever comes to mind – good or bad – is just what the man does, several times a day or more. It helped him get elected to the highest office in our country.

As a leadership challenge, leading the United States has to be about as tough as it gets. So the fact that Trump leverages Twitter so frequently and enthusiastically is worth considering, particularly for those of us who lead companies and teams that are invariably smaller and less complex than the United States government. As it turns out, we can learn a lot of things from the way Trump uses Twitter. Here are a few things I’ve learned – or been reminded of – in just the last few weeks:

Build trust
One could argue that one of our president’s primary responsibilities is to keep Americans safe. This surely includes preventing nuclear war. And yet, while Rex Tillerson, our Secretary of State, works to build trust around the world, his boss can’t help but chime in:

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There are a couple of key leadership lessons here:

  • Calling an employee “wonderful” while criticizing his work publicly – especially in front of 44 million Twitter followers – sends a mixed message, and probably won’t result in the behavior you seek. Critical feedback should be given directly, and privately.
  • Name calling is never a good idea, even if the name is something cool like “Little Rocket Man.” (If the person you’re calling “Little Rocket Man” has access to nuclear weapons, it’s an even worse idea.)

Details matter
From The Washington Post, November 30, 2017:

Taking aim at Prime Minister Theresa May’s sharp rebuke of his actions, Trump wanted May to know he was unhappy with her response. In Trump fashion, he took to Twitter to air his grievances. But he targeted the wrong Theresa May.

Scrivener, now known as the “wrong Theresa May,” broke her silence later Thursday. “It’s amazing to think that the world’s most powerful man managed to press the wrong button,” she said, adding, “I’m just glad he was not contacting me to say he was going to war with North Korea.”

Calling out a strategic partner or employee publicly can be problematic (see above). But calling out the wrong person is worse. Strong leaders confirm that they’re talking with the right person, check their spelling, etc. before going down this path. If you’re a leader but not a perfectionist, consider leveraging a proofreader before sharing something important.

Check your facts
From Factcheck.org, November 29, 2017:

President Donald Trump retweeted a video that purported to show a “Muslim migrant” beating up “a Dutch boy on crutches.” But, according to the Netherlands Embassy in the United States, the attacker wasn’t an immigrant. He was born and raised in the Netherlands.

The embassy chastised the U.S. president for spreading false information. “Facts do matter,” it said in a statement on Twitter hours after the president’s retweet.

This single example contains additional leadership lessons as well. We are taught as leaders to acknowledge implicit bias, which cannot help but exist, and to look for ways to counter it, including training, better conflict management, and implementing systems that account for it. We are also taught to slow down. From Bentley University’s website, good leaders must:

Pause…leading to more thoughtful decisions. Taking a breath or a pause in the height of the decision making process can be the most meaningful action they can take. Often, that mental and/or physical space is needed to fully understand a situation and keep a clear head.

Show integrity
In one of Trump’s tweets from this past weekend, the President wrote that he fired Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI:

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And here’s the fallout, from NBC News this morning:

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer took responsibility Sunday for a tweet that Trump sent the previous day, in which the president said for the first time that he knew his former security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI before he fired Flynn in February.

The tweet caused an uproar in Washington because it implied Trump knew Flynn had committed a felony — lying to the FBI — when he told then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on Flynn the day after the firing.

In this case, Trump tweeted information that could, theoretically, get him impeached – probably not a great move. Then, instead of admitting he’d made a mistake, Trump allowed his lawyer to take the blame. Making mistakes is no fun, but it’s also unavoidable. Owning our mistakes shows integrity.

Focus on what’s important
Last week, Michael Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to testify, Republican senators approved a sweeping tax bill, and several well-known politicians and TV personalities were accused of sexual assault. This week, a government shutdown looms. Trump spent most of last week tweeting about Hillary Clinton, James Comey, ABC News and Brian Ross, and – falsely – about Muslims behaving badly.

Many of us have intense jobs, with back-to-back meetings, large teams we’re trying to build and improve, projects with challenging deadlines that need to be met, and more. Very few of us are trying to simultaneously rewrite the tax code, change our healthcare system, prevent nuclear war, and keep ourselves out of jail. Still, we know how important it is to be able to separate the things that are critical from those that are not. If we don’t do this, we cannot be successful at our jobs.

The gift that keeps on giving
Trump is arguably the most powerful leader in the world, and his love of Twitter is beyond legendary. I’ve also recently watched Quit Social Media, Dr. Cal Newport’s compelling TED talk (thanks Jamie!), so my mind is on social media and its place in our lives and our work. I’ve been thinking about how social media makes our lives more full and also how it makes them more empty, how it creates revolution and how it spreads fake news, how it brings us together and how it pulls us apart.

The collection of the President’s tweets above is far from comprehensive, of course – we’ve got much more to learn from the tweets he’s already posted – and will likely continue to post – about war heroes, co-workers, competitors, movie stars, women, football players, and more. From a learning perspective, Trump on Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving.

And so, acknowledging that there’s still lots to learn while Trump is in office, my current view on Twitter and Trump is this: while Twitter clearly helped Trump become a more effective candidate, it has yet to help him become a more effective leader. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think it ever will.

 

 

Google’s Project Aristotle and psychological safety

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After 18 months, the team was still struggling with the project. Lots of work had been done, but most of it was unfocused, and even at this late date, no one could articulate a clear set of requirements. Hitting the deadline, an aggressive goal from the start, was starting to feel like an impossible task. The team knew they were in trouble.

As the team started to miss internal deadlines, the rest of the company began to get concerned too. Meetings were called, presentations were given, and more deadlines were set. Unsurprisingly, these new deadlines – piled on top of old deadlines that were already being missed – were missed too.

People from across the company offered to help the team in any way they could – time, expertise, snacks – but the team politely declined. They knew that failure was not an option, but they didn’t know how to accept the help that was being offered. Worse, they were scared. In order to avoid painful conversations, they pretended they had a plan. What the team really needed was to talk with the customer, to establish a definitive set of requirements to deliver. But how could they tell the customer 18 months into a 2 year project that they still didn’t know what they were supposed to be building? They decided they couldn’t. Better to keep their jobs for the next six months than to risk being fired immediately.

The Emperor has no clothes

Everything changed when a new Product Manager came into the mix. On day one, he said the emperor had no clothes. On day two, he said we were back at square one. Then he started working with the team to gather a definitive set of requirements.

“How is it possible you’re just doing that now?” stakeholders asked, “this should have happened months ago.”

“You’re right, the new Product Manager said, “it should have. But since it didn’t, we’re going to do it now.” On day five, we had a meeting scheduled with our customer to make sure we had the requirements right.

One week after our new Product Manager was hired, we had a plan. Somehow, throughout the interview process and his first week, nobody told our new Product Manager he was supposed to be too scared to do his job. As a result, he wasn’t.

Google’s Project Aristotle

I recently re-read Charles Duhigg’s terrific 2016 New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build The Perfect Team. Here’s the setup:

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together to which traits the best managers share.

The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, ‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared.

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The article goes on to describe how the test was constructed and how challenging it was for researchers to identify which group norms consistently characterized successful teams. After studying hundreds of groups over several years, however, researchers made a breakthrough:

They noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. 

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety, or ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

This finding is both intuitive and incredible. The highest performing teams, it tells us, may not have the smartest people, or the clearest goals, or the most inspiring leaders, or the clearest focus. The highest performing teams are those in which people feel “comfortable being themselves.”

Learning from failure

Psychological safety is not the only thing that makes a team great – according to the Times article, “there were other behaviors that seemed important as well – like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability.” But can a team be great if they don’t have each other’s backs? Can a team be great if they’re afraid to take chances? Can a team be great if they blame each other when things go wrong?

Google’s research is aligned with lots of great writing about learning from failure. Great teams take big swings, and when they miss (which all teams do), they learn from their mistakes and move on together. The conclusion is clear: as leaders, our job is to make sure our people feel safe enough to take chances, to challenge each other in productive ways, and to bring their very best ideas to work without the fear of being wrong. That’s the way we’ll build high performing teams, and the way our high performing teams will do amazing things.

If at first you don’t succeed, consider a different approach

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See this brick wall? It’s not a political statement. It’s a realistic view of what you can expect to see when you start your new job by telling your co-workers that everything they’ve built is crap, that their babies are ugly. But you’ve been hired to make a difference, and acknowledging that things are broken is the best way to do it fast, right?

Not necessarily.

You catch more flies with honey 

To illustrate my point, here’s a quick story most parents can relate to:

When my kids were younger, they loved mac and cheese (they were very unusual, I know). I wanted them to like sushi (I don’t remember why), and I knew I’d need to be both strategic and patient to make it happen. As many parents do, I started my kids with Japanese foods that looked familiar, like rice and noodles. After that, we worked our way to California rolls, tamago (sweet cooked eggs), and crunchy shrimp. Eventually, after many months, we were enjoying hirame and uni. This year, for my daughter’s birthday, we’re looking forward to making sushi as a family. Over time, I went from buying $4 pasta dinners to $25 sushi dinners. Mission accomplished! See how smart I am?

Your new co-workers are similar to my kids, at least in one respect: if you want to move them from mac and cheese to sushi, you’ll need to be strategic and patient. Chances are good they’ve been working in a particular way for a while, and most of them aren’t eager to change their thinking just because somebody new comes along – especially somebody who doesn’t know the history behind the decisions that were made. I know from experience that, if your new co-workers are talented and smart, the “brilliant new ideas” you share your first week on the job may well be ones they’ve had before, and there are reasons they haven’t been implemented. Assuming your new team hasn’t considered these things in the past can come across as condescending. You were hired to make the company better, but you can’t do that without respecting your co-workers enough to try and understand the decisions they made in the past – even the ones you think are wrong.

Of course, the fact that the team has tried similar approaches in the past doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try again. New people, org structures, and business challenges mean new opportunity, and it’d be crazy not to take another run at making things better. At a previous job, I gave all new employees a letter, effectively telling them not to be deterred by “we’ve already tried that” thinking, not to drink so much company Kool Aid that they lost their objectivity – and especially their passion. We need you to bring new ideas, new energy, and new approaches to your new job, the note said – that’s why we hired you.

A real world example

I used to work with a super-smart, extremely entrepreneurial technical architect. He was hired to help our technology team move forward, to create a compelling vision for the future, one that would support the growth of our business for years to come. I’ll call him Tom.

When Tom arrived at the company, he was eager to make a difference, fast. He assessed the situation and realized it was bleak. When Tom had his first meeting with the CTO (his boss), he gave it to him straight. Our technology was crap, antiquated and brittle. If we ever wanted to move forward, we’d have to start over from scratch. Tom had discussed this with key team members, and they hadn’t embraced his perspective. They needed to ship up or shape out. Time was a-wasting.

Tom was surprised when the CTO got defensive, but he shouldn’t have been. The CTO had been with the company for several years, which meant he’d contributed to the “crap” Tom was disparaging. Tom was calling the CTO’s baby ugly, and it didn’t go over well. But here’s the thing: Tom was right. The baby was ugly, and it needed parenting. What’s more, the company knew it – that’s why they hired him. Still, the medicine Tom was offering was bitter. If he was going to affect change, he’d need to find a way to help it go down.

That’s not what happened. Tom was a brilliant technologist, but he lacked the patience, savvy, and stamina to get the job done. His job wasn’t to be smarter than everyone else, or to be right. Tom’s job was to improve the company, and at that he failed miserably. He was gone in months.

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Try something different

Tom didn’t fail because he was honest and direct; lots of companies thrive on direct feedback and communication, and it can be a great way to get things done quickly. Tom failed because, when it was obvious his first approach wasn’t working, he refused – or was unable – to try something different.

Very few goals can be achieved in just one way. If I’d had the chance, I might have coached Tom to focus on his goal, and to engage the team in finding new ways to achieve it. If Tom saw the shortcomings in our technology within days, others on the team probably saw them too. And if the team was resistant to the idea of scrapping our technology and starting from scratch, maybe they had ideas of their own.

You can apply this kind of thinking to any problem, of course, not just technology. Even if you’ve been hired to be a “change agent,” your company is full of smart people who’ve made the best decisions they could over time. If they fail to see the genius of your first approach, try another.

It’s a marathon, not a race

The problem with trying lots of different things is this: it’s really hard, and it takes a long time.

Coming up with various approaches means having a great attitude in the face of failure, and showing up at work each day determined to make a difference. It means challenging yourself and your team, building trust, listening, and taking partners. It means creating presentations, collaborating, and jumping through hoops. It means being creative, resilient, humble, and optimistic. It means taking chances, being open to new ideas, and risking failure. This should sound hard, because it is.

All this takes time, of course, but it’s well worth the investment. The top-down approach may seem efficient, but when the team buys into the change you’re proposing, it’s much more likely to stick. If it takes six months to get where you need to be instead of three, that’s okay; you’re in it for the long haul. And when you get it right, the rewards can be amazing.

Before going down with the ship, make sure you’re the captain

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It was 2005, but I remember it clearly. I was working for a company that was quickly making its way up the Fortune 500, and its desire to extend the business internationally was causing us to stretch in new, uncomfortable ways. A large consulting company that had “done this kind of thing before” was now running the show, and our CIO was leaving in the midst of lots of rumor and turmoil. On his last day, the CIO, who had capably led us through many other challenges in his eight years with the company, stood before us with tears in his eyes. We were a Technology team of 1000 people.

“I’ve failed you,” he said, “and now I’m leaving.”

The consultants had convinced my company that outsourcing its Technology department would both improve performance and save money. Our CIO had fought the decision with all he had, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. As we watched him leave, the reality of the situation sunk in: the rest of us weren’t going anywhere, at least for the time being. Was our CIO leaving because he was outvoted on the outsourcing decision? Was he leaving because his ego couldn’t take the hit?

Had our captain abandoned our ship, jumping into a small lifeboat and leaving us to drown?

The writing on the wall

Last December, after more than five years at my previous company, I left to join SportsEngine as VP of Product and User Experience. Leaving my job was one of the hardest decisions of my career – in partnership with some of my favorite co-workers ever, I’d built an amazing team from the ground up. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know the team I was leaving was forward-thinking and creative, that we were lean and Agile, and that we were high performing.

When I started exploring other options, I knew that the reasons to stay were significant and plentiful: my co-workers were great, I was respected, and I had the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. For months before I left I would meet up with friends and float the idea of finding a new gig. They looked at me like I had two heads. “How could you leave?,” they asked, “it sounds perfect.” From the outside looking in, I was in an ideal spot. Each time I met with a friend I returned to my office determined to make it work. What was I thinking?

But the writing was on the wall. The company was struggling, and I was struggling to grow there. I had all sorts of ideas about how to make things better – org changes, new hires, process changes, new focus areas, and more – but my suggestions went nowhere. I’ve written in the past about people who have the wrong attitude and how toxic that can be, and I did my best to address those situations when they arose in myself and in others. I looked for new angles, different ways to approach our problems, short- and long-term solutions. Over the course of almost a year, I exhausted every path I could identify. My frustration grew. I didn’t – and I don’t – blame my boss or the company for failing to see how “brilliant” my suggestions were. My knowledge was limited in some ways, and my ideas were rooted in my own biases. It’s very possible that some of my ideas were uninformed, impossible, or just plain bad.

Through it all, my team continued to perform terrifically. At our annual offsite, the CEO told the group we were among the company’s highest performers, and the team grew as other areas in the business were consolidated and moved. Our team was highly motivated, delivering great work and usually feeling both valuable and valued. But if I couldn’t extend my influence beyond my team, I knew the honeymoon wouldn’t last. And I knew I wouldn’t last either.

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Who’s the captain?

All of which brings us back to the CIO at the start of this post – the man who left his large team at sea. Did he do the right thing?

Of all the reasons to stay at my company, the biggest was guilt. As I mentioned above, I’d built my team from scratch, and I’d played a role in the hiring of nearly everyone on it. My closest coworkers were also close friends. How could I abandon them? To make matters worse, the company wasn’t doing well. As a leader, wasn’t my job to rally the troops? If the ship was sinking, shouldn’t I be sinking with it?

I questioned my own motives for wanting to leave. For the most part, I felt listened to and valued, even as my best ideas languished on the sidelines. My relationships were strong, and I was assured that my future at the company was bright. I was frustrated, but not angry. Was my ego getting in the way of my desire to stand by my team? After some reflection, I decided it wasn’t. I was just getting my head around something I’d realized before but hadn’t really accepted: I might have been the captain of my team, but I was clearly not the captain of the company.

Months ago, in a blog post about getting fired, I wrote:

After we’ve said our piece, when the dust has settled and we didn’t get our way, our choices are clear: we can change our attitude, or we can change our scenery.

It was time.

Leaving can create opportunity 

There were lots of good reasons for me to leave my company, including career growth, opportunity, interesting new challenges, general well-being, and more. Several people on my team saw that it was also an opportunity for them. If I felt like I was stagnating in my role, looking for ways to extend my influence, there were others who felt that way too. The last thing I wanted to do was hold good people back.

When I eventually left the company, several people had the opportunity to grow in their roles, to lead bigger teams and to drive bigger decisions. The team I’d helped create continued to evolve, and was, in lots of ways, self-sustaining. It was ready for new leadership and ideas. Despite my best efforts, I had to acknowledge that my own ideas and approach weren’t working.

The CIO at the start of this post knew the same thing about his Technology team. He knew we had to become what the company needed now, rather than the thing he’d built. His leaving was an acknowledgment that the company was changing, that he was not the captain, and that he understood his own limits. He was stepping aside – at least partly – so that new leaders could emerge, and so the group could evolve and grow without being constrained by the “old guard.” I like to think that I was doing that too.

Fortune favors the bold

Maybe I’m rationalizing in order to make myself feel better. I’ve spent some time with my previous team members these past few weeks and things have been hard. The company’s going through lots of change, and the new leaders who are learning to step up are doing it in extraordinary circumstances. For some, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, a crash course in business and leadership. It’s not easy, but that’s okay.

The decision to leave a job is a very personal one, with lots of professional, practical, and emotional considerations. The idea of a captain (or worse, rats!) abandoning a sinking ship has been so ingrained in our culture that it can be impossible to see beyond. But this is an unfair over-simplification. There’s a difference between abandoning ship and knowing when moving on is the right call for yourself and your team.

A company will do what it needs to in order to survive and thrive, and that’s a good thing; that’s what it’s supposed to do. Still, despite certain Supreme Court decisions, companies are not people, and they don’t have feelings. We need to be able to understand this, and to make decisions about our careers accordingly. Too many of us are afraid to be perceived as captains abandoning ship when we should be embracing a more relevant, empowering truth: fortune favors the bold.

The importance of being present

being-present

Whatever you’re doing, right now, learn to focus completely on doing that one thing. Pay attention: to every aspect of what you’re doing, to your body, to the sensations, to your thoughts. (Source: Zen Habits)

Being completely, totally present is an incredibly important – and often difficult – task. My spouse and kids (and yours too, I’m guessing) will tell you it’s nearly impossible to keep my attention when work’s busy and my phone’s buzzing, and that it’s only slightly less challenging when work’s not busy and my phone’s not buzzing, because who knows what fascinating information might be delivered to me or my Facebook stream at any moment. I’d tell you the same thing about them, of course, and they’d agree.

Being present may be more challenging than ever, but distractions were not invented by Apple. I don’t know what my parents did when I was on the playground as a little boy, but I know it wasn’t giving me their undivided attention. Maybe it was reading magazines, or etching words into stone tablets.

What in the world did people used to do when they were waiting in line – just wait?

At work, being present for our co-workers requires a similar focus. I’ve gotten good at asking co-workers to “wait just a second while I finish this email so I can give you my full attention,” and it’s helped a lot. But as a leader, being present means something a little bit different, a little bit more, which I want to explore.

What does it mean for a leader to be present?

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around? “My boss is completely disconnected from the business,” you might say, or “she wouldn’t make those decisions if she wasn’t so clueless.” When the object of our scorn is in another office – or on vacation, or in a board meeting – it’s easy to assume the worst. Things are different – and more complicated – when our target is around, because it’s much harder to dislike a real person than it is to dislike a caricature of one.

When leaders are hidden away in their offices, teams start talking. They assume their leaders are focused on spreadsheets or board decks or expensive trips or golf. They assume their leaders are uninterested in the day-to-day workings of their business, or in the people on their teams. They assume their leaders are clueless.

When times are good, this can be just a minor annoyance: the people in the trenches tend to feel supported, empowered, and comfortable in the knowledge that they’re working towards a larger goal. They’re less concerned about their work being recognized because they know they’re part of a winning, growing team, and trust isn’t that big a deal. They’re also likely to get better raises and bonuses, which tend make people feel better, even if just for a little while.

When times are bad and leaders are not present, it’s a recipe for disaster. Without context, workers tend to assume the worst about their company and its leaders. They assume management is clueless, focused on all the wrong things and making bad decisions. They assume their own excellent work is not being noticed, and the message that “we need to do more with less” falls on frustrated ears. They may even assume their jobs are at risk.

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around?

Bad news doesn’t have to be bad

I give my team bad news all the time. Here’s why:

Context helps teams make better decisions
When business is bad, I may need my team to think differently, reprioritize work, be more creative, or collaborate with others throughout the company. Without the overall business context, they might not know how or why.

Sharing bad news builds trust 
Every company has its ups and down – pretending yours doesn’t won’t fool anybody. When we trust employees enough to give them bad news, they trust that we’re telling the truth when things are good. They may ask hard questions, and we should want them to. Hard questions give us an opportunity to address real concerns.

People rise to the occasion
Every company I’ve been at, from those with 100K+ employees to those with only 4, has had a “rise above” moment. Adversity can bring out the best in people and teams, but only if they understand the context, the goal, and what needs to be done. Most people want to help, and will work much harder when they’ve been challenged appropriately.

Get out of your office!

Being present means being seen, and that means leaders need to get out of their offices, especially when work is hard. When we’re physically present, our teams know we’re mentally present too. Even if our jobs require us to travel often, we can – and must – make our presence felt.

This is hard to do! When things are bad, we don’t want to go on a “world tour” to tell people about it. We don’t want to tell our teams that we might have layoffs, or that we might not get our bonuses. We want to retreat to our offices and avoid hard conversations that will make people unhappy. What if they’re demotivated? What if our best people get freaked out and quit?

But the alternative is much worse. If we don’t tell our teams what’s really happening in our business, they’ll assume the worst, and they’ll make things up. When we miss plan, they’ll think it means that the company is going out of business. When we go on business trips, they’ll think we’re flying on private jets and drinking champagne. When a board meeting lasts an extra hour, they’ll assume layoffs are coming.

Worst of all, our teams won’t keep these thoughts to themselves. They’ll share their negative thoughts with others on the team, and with their friends at other companies. They’ll share their negative thoughts with recruiters, and at networking events, and with their buddies and their families. They’ll post their feelings on Facebook, and Twitter, and Glass DoorComplaining can be cathartic, but a workforce of people out airing their dirty laundry in public can be disastrous.

Notice when people do good work

Finally, being present isn’t just about being there physically, it’s about truly understanding what’s going on. Sometimes that means ignoring the big picture and focusing on great work that’s happening within the teams. I used to have a boss who got so distracted when overall business was bad that he couldn’t even see they great work my team was delivering. This was extremely demotivating. Hey! Over here! We just climbed Mount Everest! We increased conversion by 20 basis points! (Mom, get off of your iPhone! I lost a tooth!)

It’s a marathon, not a race

When we’re present for our teams, we acknowledge their problems, clear roadblocks, and celebrate their successes. We’re honest about business challenges that lay ahead, even if we’re selective when sharing specifics. We trust our teams to understand and to rally around our goals. We pay close attention to the specific work our teams are doing. When the work is great, we tell them, and we connect their success to the success of the company. We make sure they know it matters.

Business is a marathon, not a race. Most employees can’t (and don’t want to) change jobs each time things get hard. They’ve already bought houses and organized their schedules, so they’re placing a bet on the company – and it’s leaders – for the long haul. The best thing you can do to honor that commitment is to show your face. That way your team knows that you’ve placed the same bet.

We need to talk about locker room talk

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Just a few weeks ago, more than 62 million Americans voted for the presidential candidate who said this:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

I don’t believe that most people think it’s okay to “grab them by the pussy,” at work or anyplace else. And yet, 62 million is a lot of votes, so there are things we need to talk about. Here’s the above quote with a small tweak that’s more real than we’d like to think:

When you’re the boss they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Make no mistake: “the boss” I’m referring to is a man. In today’s Fortune 500, only 4% of the CEOs are female. According to Fortune, “for women at the top levels of American business, it can sometimes feel like every step forward is followed by two steps back.”

No kidding! I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Nancy Lyons, the amazing CEO at Clockwork in Minneapolis. “I’m so sick of hearing about the glass ceiling,” Nancy said, “it’s not glass, it’s concrete.”

Grabbing them by the whatever 

As the “you can do anything” comment traveled through the media this past October, Trump was forced to explain himself:

“This was locker room talk. I am not proud of it. I apologized to my family and the American people,” Trump said. “I am embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk and one of those things.”

“For the record, are you saying that what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not kiss women without consent or grope women?” Cooper said.

“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump replied.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going give our president-elect the benefit of the doubt and take his comments as crass, rather than predatory. But I’ve still got questions. Can someone both respect women and say these kinds of things at the same time? And does saying these things, even as a joke, sometimes lead to doing them? In Malcom Gladwell’s terrific 2015 New Yorker article “Thresholds of Violence,” the author writes: 

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? […] Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.

In other words, we might not jump off a bridge just because one friend is doing it, but if lots of friends are doing it, that bridge might not look so bad after all.

Consider “locker room talk” in this context. One man saying crass things is an anomaly. A group of men in a locker room saying crass things creates an environment in which people start to say things “that seem at odds with who they are.” A locker room like that would not be a safe place for a woman.

And this kind of behavior is not confined to the locker room. According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC):

More than half (52%) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of women aged 18-24 years old, said they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a new research from the TUC in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project published today [August 10, 2016].

In the vast majority of cases (88%), the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was male, and nearly one in five (17%) women reported that it was their line manager, or someone with direct authority over them.

The survey says that:

  • nearly one in three (32%) of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • more than one in four (28%) of women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • a fifth (20%) of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • around one in eight (12%) women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

I don’t need to find additional sources to confirm what the TUC has found; these results will surprise nobody. The show “Mad Men” is not a time capsule, it’s a mirror.

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A few more words about locker room talk

Lots of men who spend lots of time in locker rooms have responded to Trump’s claim that his comments were just the usual “locker room talk.” From Time Magazine:

Many athletes condemned Trump’s caricature of the locker room. For example Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy, wrote on Twitter: “I’m offended as an athlete that @realDonaldTrump keeps using this “locker room talk” as an excuse.” Former NBA star Grant Hill wrote, “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and what Trump said is not locker room banter.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dahntay Jones wrote, “Claiming Trump’s comments are “locker room banter” is to suggest they are somehow acceptable. They aren’t.”

This gives me hope, especially the part about this kind of talk not being acceptable. But even if these athletes have never heard this kind of talk in a locker room, it’s not enough, because a locker room is really just a proxy for lots of other places where men behave this way: bars, clubs, man-caves, and other places we’d rather not acknowledge – including offices.

The thing about these kinds of places is that women aren’t welcome, comfortable, or safe in them. So while we need to make sure we don’t treat our businesses like lockehemanwomanhatersclubr rooms, I’m not sure why we need to treat our locker rooms like locker rooms either. If we’re serious about equity and safety, we can’t.

Here’s what we can do, for a start: We can refuse to put up with people objectifying women or making crass jokes at work. We can stop saying things we wouldn’t want our wives to hear when we’re with “the guys.” We can refuse to look the other way, even when things are uncomfortable.

If this all sounds like yet another person arguing for political correctness, I’m okay with that. I’m not naive, and I know I have my own biases and behaviors. But I’m working on these things, and I’m going to fake it until I make it. I hope you will too.

The C-suite is largely reserved for men

So far, I’ve written about women feeling safe in the office, but this is a low bar – what we really want is for the office to be fair. A fair office is safe, of course, and includes gender equality in both career opportunities and pay. According to USA Today:

A survey by consultancy McKinsey and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org group found that men are 30% more likely than women to be promoted from entry level to manager.

At the entry level, 54% are men and 46% are women. But at the manager level, 63% are men and 37% are women, and at the vice-president level 71% are men and 29% are women.

By the time they reach the C-suite — which includes positions like chief financial officer and chief operating officer — 81% are men and 19% are women. Representation is even worse for women of color, according to the study.

The fact that women are more likely to be sexually harassed at work and the fact that women are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts may not be directly related. But these facts together help tell the story of a culture in which women are treated unfairly at work, and we need to do better.

There’s so much more!

I haven’t even scratched the surface of this issue. More stats:

A woman has a right to work in a safe place, free of harassment. She has a right to be treated fairly, to have opportunities to advance her career. She has a right to equal pay for equal work.

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Equal pay for equal work

Here are a few ideas to help ensure that our businesses promote equal pay for equal work:

  • If you’re a people manager or in HR, review the salaries of your employees, their skills, and their experiences, and fix any disparities you see. If the disparity is due to poor salary negotiation, fix it anyway.
  • When it comes to promotions, go out of your way to make sure qualified women get the chance to prove their worth.
  • Consider replacing your company’s maternity leave policy with a parental leave policy. Maternity leave suggests that caring for the family is a woman’s job. Parental leaves evens the playing field, and implies no judgement.

This Quartz article  has a few more good ideas, specifically related to pay:

What the law could do
The law can mandate equal pay. For instance, in the US, equal pay regardless of gender was signed into a law by president John F. Kennedy in 1963, with the Equal Pay Act. It will be a while before equal pay for all is a reality.

What employers should do
Employers can adopt strict rules to ensure fairness, and effectively run businesses that guarantee equality of treatment. But, this is something society can’t count on. The obvious reason is that employers often perceive increasing wages beyond the minimum they have to pay someone to be against their economic self-interest, even though such a view is short-sighted at best.

What employees must do
Salary transparency is knowledge, and knowledge is the ultimate weapon to address pay inequalities from the inside. Do you know if your company pays you fairly? In that knowledge–knowing how much everyone around you makes–lies the key to know your value, and the fairness of your treatment. 

Will it cost companies more to compensate people equally for equal work? Absolutely. But what’s the alternative? Working for a company that relies on a gender discount to turn a profit? One more time:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

This kind of talk is not okay, whether it’s shared in the locker room or the board room. But it’s not just the talk that needs to stop. Whether we like it or not, we have institutionalized discrimination in the workplace. We can do better.