Category Archives: Leadership/Management

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.

Building good things is boring

goodthingsWhen I arrived at a new job several years ago, things were looking good. Work/life balance favored life, the dress code was non-existent, and employees were on track to get bonuses yet again. Our website was usually up, returns were usually down, and customers were generally pleased.

So it surprised my new boss when I stormed into his office telling him that things needed to change – the org structure was wrong, we lacked focus and purpose, and our product was just okay.

“Take a deep breath,” he said, “things are pretty good.”

“I don’t want things to be good,” I countered. “Building good things is boring. I want to build something great.”

My boss was intrigued, and he knew I was right. If we continued on our current path, we’d collect our bonuses, make lots of money, and still be home early for dinner. But there was a downside.

Why be great?

When “good enough” is good enough, all sorts of bad things happen. For example:

  • Innovation and risk-taking are discouraged
  • Top performers tend to underperform (or find new jobs)
  • We settle for mediocrity
  • People are promoted based on tenure instead of the value they bring

Incremental improvement can be terrific, but it can also get in the way. When we try to turn something good into something great, we get just the opposite:

  • Innovation and risk-taking are encouraged
  • Top performers are fully engaged, and pushed to do their best work
  • We never settle
  • People are promoted for adding business value

When an organization strives for greatness, inspired employees are rallied around a common goal, and everyone brings their best ideas and energy to the table. Sometimes we work long hours or forget to eat a meal, but it never feels that way. Trying to build something great feels fantastic.

A cautionary tale

A few years ago, I took a job at a small, well-funded internet startup. The founder had recruited experienced talent, and the team rallied around our “big hairy audacious goal“: to change the way people consumed information online. We worked hard to produce something great.

Along the way we started to run out of capital, and our BHAG took a backseat to our need to say afloat. We built a series of mediocre products that we tried to monetize, and we struggled to find an audience. Some would argue we were being pragmatic, that we couldn’t afford to build something great – we needed to build something good instead.

But when we stopped trying to build something great, we lost our focus. We started coming to work late, leaving early, and spending too much time worrying about lunch. Our focus turned from work to work/life balance, and we were no longer inspired to bring our very best to the office every day. A few of my co-workers loved it.

“This is the best job ever,” I remember one of them telling me.

“Not for long,” I warned.

In a few weeks, we were looking for new jobs. Would we have stayed in business longer if we stayed committed to building something great? We’ll never know. But I do know this: I would have felt a whole lot better about it.

Secrets of the Superbosses: let them go

imgres-1There are all sorts of great ideas contained in Sydney Finkelsteins’ Harvard Business Review article Secrets of the Superbosses, things like hiring unconventionally; seeking out people who are smart, creative, and flexible; focusing on “unlikely winners”; and adapting the work to fit the talent. I especially love the part about helping employees move on the bigger and better opportunities:

Smart, creative, flexible people tend to have fast-paced careers. Some may soon want to move on. That’s OK with superbosses. They understand that the quality of talent on their teams matters more than stability, and they regard turnover as an opportunity to find fresh stars.

I hope to keep my best people on my team forever, I really do. But there are great reasons to embrace the fact that I can’t. Here are a few:

  • I’d rather keep a high performer in the company than lose them entirely: I’ve got people on my team who will deserve to be promoted in the next 1-3 years, maybe more people than I have opportunities. If I can grow my employees’ careers by helping them find a role on a different team, I might be able to keep them within the company.
  • New talent can be a great thing: Smart, motivated, new employees will bring new energy and ideas to the party. Adding people to the team is a huge risk, and I don’t take it lightly – it can be a disaster. But adding the right people can elevate everyone’s game, including my own.
  • It’s a small world after-all: My current employer is not my first, and more than likely it won’t be my last. There’s a very pragmatic reason to support my best people moving on to bigger and better roles, even at other companies: when I’m out looking for a new job, I’ll be glad to have good friends in high places.

Towards the end of the article, Finkelstein writes:

Superbosses employ practices that set them head and shoulders above even the best traditional bosses. They seek out talent differently and hire them in unusual ways. They create high expectations and take it upon themselves to serve as “masters” to up-and-coming “apprentices.” And they accept it when their protégés go on to bigger and better things, making sure to stay connected.

Superbosses think differently about their roles and responsibilities: they push their people, expect great things, and are confident in their own ability to grow and maintain talented teams. Part of this is acknowledging that, sometimes, to let a person grow, you have to let them go.