Category Archives: Leadership/Management

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.

 

 

The importance of being present

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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.