Category Archives: Leadership/Management

Leaders: You Must be Present to Win

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Years ago, the company I worked for was struggling. We hadn’t hit our numbers in months, and it was determined that layoffs would be necessary. Secret meetings were scheduled, often early in the morning or late in the day. Spreadsheets were created, reviewed, and updated. The process went on for weeks. During that time, if you happened to catch a glimpse of one of our executives, it would have been racing through the halls from meeting room to office, quickly and with focus. When they arrived safely in their offices, our leaders closed their doors, so as not to be asked questions that were impossible to answer.

If you’ve been around awhile, you’ve likely witnessed this kind of behavior. It’s completely understandable, and an absolute disaster. Employees know their leaders are privy to private information, and that there are things they can’t share. They get it. But when leaders start to hide away, purposely making themselves unavailable, it makes employees angry and nervous. And what do employees do when they’re angry and nervous about their jobs? They look for new ones. In most cases, your best employees are the ones who’ll find jobs first.

This is what happened at the company I’m describing. What started out as a small, potentially containable reduction in force turned into a mass exodus, as employees lost trust in their leaders and looked elsewhere. I learned a lesson I will never forget: leaders must be present to win.

Unprecedented times

Remember back in March when the coronavirus was spiking and our employers sent us home? My company’s first fully remote day was Friday, March 13. We thought we’d be back in two or three weeks, tops.

It’s shocking to remember how naive we were at the start of this global pandemic. Did we really think it would be taken care of in two weeks? My first note to the team included a sentence or two about the emotional aspects of the situation, and then a full page of logistics: best practices for remote meetings, core hours, ergonomic concerns, and the like. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t awesome. I soon learned that the logistics of working from home were going to need to take a backseat to the more pressing concerns of my team members, like fear and loneliness.

In March, there was no way to know what leadership challenges we’d be facing in the coming months. We said the word “unprecedented” a lot, but how many of us fully understood what that meant? If a global pandemic was our only challenge, there were still no books to read to get us through, no podcasts to listen to from people who’d been through it before. And a global pandemic was not our only challenge.

Still, at that time we had our hands full with the things we knew about. As three weeks turned to four, and then five, my leadership team and I looked for new ways to keep the team upbeat, engaged, productive, and informed. Our weekly all hands meeting would continue, of course, complemented by daily leadership stand-ups and a weekly all-team happy hour, with trivia and other fun games. We slowly settled into our new normal.

Staying in touch

There’s a big difference between leading a remote team and leading a remote team during a pandemic. It was a little bit different for my technology team, but in general, my company had considered working remotely a perk, reserved for all-stars who had proven themselves capable and trust worthy. When working remotely became a requirement on March 13, it was as big an adjustment for managers as it was for individual contributors.

A technology team, of course, handles issues as they occur, at all hours of the day, from wherever we happen to be. This means the logistics of working remotely had been figured out ages ago, as a matter of course. I had zero concern in this area.

But I was concerned about how I was going to continue to connect with my team members. Each of our teams has a daily standup, but I’m not on any of the teams, and “walking the floor” had been an important part of my routine. How would I replicate that in an all-virtual environment?

The short answer is that I couldn’t, but I could find other ways to connect. I became a Slack power user, adding comments in channels where I used to lurk quietly, and reaching out to employees I didn’t naturally cross paths with on a regular basis. I blocked time on my calendar time for these Slack check-ins, almost as though they were one-on-ones.

I did – and I do – other things too. I’ve scheduled long-distance lunch dates with employees and teammates, gone for bike rides and walks, and hosted small socially-distanced happy hours in my backyard. I’ve sent emails, texted, showed up at meetings, and met people at parks. The reasons for doing these things are both personal and professional. Of course I need to find creative ways to stay close to the work my team is doing, to get beyond the surface. But I also need to stay close to the people. I miss seeing them in real life, and I need to make sure they know they’re on my mind, that I care.

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The weekly email

Nearly every Monday morning since March 16, I’ve sent an email to my entire team (I missed two when I was on vacation). It’s a commitment I made to myself on day one, and George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed reinforced the need. There were things I needed to say, and things the team needed to hear. Even if I couldn’t see every person on my team every week, I needed to be present, and I need to communicate proactively.

After more than five months, it can be hard to find ways to keep the emails fresh and new, but that’s not really the point. Some weeks I write about world events or work highlights. Other weeks I discuss things that are happening in my family or articles I find. It can be hard to find the right balance between sharing my opinions and veering into what currently passes for politics, but I try. Here are a few excerpts from my emails.

March 23:

My family, like most of yours, is trying to make the most of our time together without killing each other. My teenage son works at the local Kowalski’s, and he’s thoroughly enjoying being the only person in our family classified by the government as an “emergency worker.” 

June 8:

Over the course of the last week, George Floyd’s murder went from being a local story about an unjust police killing in Minneapolis to a national emergency focused on much larger, systemic issues. Thousands of people across the country are joining together and saying “no more.” It’s about time. Please stay safe and wear your masks out there.

July 27:

I know it can feel weird to do, given that most people aren’t actually going anywhere, but an occasional day off can be fantastic for our mental health, and I strongly encourage people to use PTO when you can. Most people are not currently doing this. Maybe you’re saving it for a rainy day, or hoping things will open up more this year? Fair enough. I’m not telling you what to you – my only motive is to make sure those of you who need a break find a way to get one. Burnout is real, and it’s something I’d like to avoid, if possible. 

You get the idea. The email isn’t magical, but it reminds my team that I’m here, that I’m human, and that I’m deeply invested in our success. It also keeps me present and gives me another opportunity to lead, and I’ve gotten consistent feedback that the team likes it. (By the way, if something important happens today, I’m not going to wait until next Monday’s email to reach out to the team.)

Employee expectations

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in uncharted territory, both as employees and as leaders. You can argue that great leadership strategies work regardless of the situation, but let’s face it: Jack Welch never led a team through a pandemic.

There are a lot of things we don’t know – how long the coronavirus will last, its lasting impact on our businesses, when we’ll be back in our offices, the outcome of the next election, whether we’ll make real improvements related to equity, and so much more. It’s incredibly hard to lead a team through so much uncertainty. In order to do it, we need to free ourselves from the idea that our teams expect us to be all-knowing. They don’t.

But our teams do expect certain things from us, especially now. They expect us to be honest, for example, and to be as transparent as possible, even though they know we sometimes have information that can’t be shared. They expect us to listen to their concerns, and to escalate them within our organizations as it makes sense. They expect us to understand that it’s impossible to be completely present in a meeting when they’re bouncing their toddlers on their laps. They expect us to be human, and – even if they don’t always show it – they know we’re feeling a lot of the same stress and uncertainty they are. Most of all, our teams expect us to be present, to show our faces, and to walk the talk.

In this post, I’ve shared a few of my own ideas and strategies for being present with my team. I hope some of them are useful to you, but I’m very aware that I don’t have it all figured out – we’re all learning as we go. Now I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies. How are you finding ways to connect with your teams? What’s working, and what’s not? How are you balancing your own stress with your work? How are you showing the team they’re in good hands? How are you leveraging technology? How are you being present for your team every single day? I’d love to know.

Donald Trump, Job Applicant

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I’m not the first person to point out that if Donald Trump had a “normal” job, he’d have been fired by now. No HR policy would allow his behavior, and no Board of Directors could withstand the scrutiny, regardless of how much money he was making the company. A recent Business Insider article titled “What if Your Boss Acted Like This?” put it this way:

Imagine your boss did this: 

You send him a memo about a life-or-death issue for the company, and he doesn’t read it. He has regular calls with firms you’re doing deals with, but he doesn’t prepare for them, and instead spends the whole call talking about himself, or insulting the person he’s talking to. He commits an egregious, humiliating screw-up one morning, then turns his phone off and plays golf, leaving everyone else to clean up the mess.

These are not hypothetical examples. This is quite literally an account — taken from a single day! — of how Donald Trump does the job we hired him to do, and that we pay him to do.

But Donald Trump doesn’t have a “normal” job, and the only way he can be “fired” is if the American people vote him out. In fact, Donald Trump has never actually even had to  apply for a job (if you think running for president counts, compare that with any job interview you’ve had). So I started to wonder: what would happen if he did?

An interesting resume 

Imagine it, if you can: Donald Trump, fresh off his tour as President of the United States, sending out resumes in the hopes that one of the companies he’s considered buying over the past 50 years might hire him instead. The jobs I hire for, typically team leaders, product managers, product designers, and software engineers, are somewhat specialized, and require a fair amount of experience, but let’s face it: Trump’s resume is pretty interesting, so I might bring him in regardless.

The Interview

The interview here is, of course, imagined. Trump’s words are his own, pulled from interviews and statements he’s given in the last five years, with links to their original sources. My questions aren’t actual interview questions, but I think they get the job done.

Lee: What makes you a the best candidate for the job?

DJT: ….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

Lee: That sounds impressive. And that makes you the best candidate?

DJT: So great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!

Lee: Um, okay. Accountability is a big deal to me. Tell me about a time when you took responsibility for something that didn’t go well.

DJT: [Silence]

Lee: Maybe related to the coronavirus?

DJT: I don’t take responsibility at all. This horrible disease was sent to us by China. It should not have been sent. They should have stopped it. They could have stopped it.  They didn’t. And the entire world has gotten infected, and a lot of countries are going through a lot right now.

Lee: Once it was clear that coronavirus was here, and that we needed to deal with it, how did you see the role of the federal government versus the states?

DJT: The states’ testing is up to the states to do, which will implement the test and logistically coordinate the tests.

Lee: “The states’ testing is up to the states to do”? That’s not really saying anything at all.

DJT: Similar to the situation with ventilators, states need to assess their complete inventory of available capacity. Some states have far more capacity than they actually understand. And it is a complex subject, but some of the governors didn’t understand it. Not simply ask the federal government to provide unlimited support.

Lee: So the states should not ask the federal government for support?

DJT: The authority of the President of the United States, having to do with the subject we’re talking about, is total.

Lee: I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s assume – just for a minute – that it is. How would you rate yourself in your handling of the coronavirus? I mean, the U.S. has already had more than 5.5 million cases, with more than 170,000 deaths.

DJT: Nobody has done anything like we’ve been able to do. And everything I took over was a mess. It was a broken country in so many ways. In so many ways. We have done a job, the likes of which nobody has ever done.

When I took this over, it was an empty box. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have anything. We had a broken system there. We had a broken system with stockpiling. We had a lot of broken systems. And I’m not just blaming President Obama. You go long before that.

Lee: I’m still trying to figure out which role on the team might be the best fit for you. Your responses don’t exactly scream “engineer.” What job on the team do you think you’d be best suited for?

DJT: I don’t know if you know this but probably 10 years ago I was honored. I was the man of the year by I think somebody, whoever. I was the man of the year in Michigan, can you believe it? Long time.

Other countries come to see me, all of their leaders they say, sir, first thing, sir, congratulations on your economy. We’re trying to do the same thing. Congratulations sir. And I say you think Hillary could do this? I don’t think so.

Lee: Are you talking about Hillary Clinton? I’m not sure what this has to do with her, and we don’t have an opening for “man of the year,” but since you’re focused on the economy, maybe a job in Finance? Although it’s been extensively reported that, under your leadership. the US economy is suffering its biggest contraction in 75 years. That doesn’t make it sound like you’d be an asset to our Finance team.

DJT:  It was just put out that the United States economy added almost 5 million jobs in the month of June, shattering all expectations. The stock market is doing extremely well, which means, to me, jobs. This is the largest monthly jobs gain in the history of our country. The unemployment rate fell by more than 2 percentage points down to just about 11 percent. We started at a number very much higher than that.  As you know, we broke the record last month, and we broke it again this month in an even bigger way.

Lee: This certainly seems like good news to me. All this talk about jobs makes me think you might be a fit for our HR department. Like other companies, we’re working hard to be anti-racist, and as a Minneapolis-based company, we were sickened by the murder of George Floyd.

DJT: All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served.

Lee: I’m so glad to hear you say that, I was nervous you were going to say something about there being “fine people on both sides.”

DJT: Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, “This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.” This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality. It’s really what our constitution requires and it’s what our country is all about.

Lee: How on earth can this be a great day for a man who was brutally murdered by police?

DJT: What we’re announcing today is a tremendous tribute to equality. We’re bringing our jobs back. When we had our tremendous numbers. And when we had just prior to the China plague that floated in, we had numbers, the best in history for African American, for Hispanic American, and for Asian American and for everybody. Best for women, best for people without a diploma, young people without a diploma. I mean so many different categories. Our numbers were the best in almost every category.

Lee: I notice you mentioned women.

DJT: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the –

Lee: [Interrupting] So definitely not a job in HR. Wow, look at the time! Thanks so much for coming in. We’ve got a few other candidates to talk with, but you should expect to hear from our HR team within a few days.

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Unqualified for any job

There you have it. My imagined interview, with answers pulled from real interviews, speeches, and Tweets. My goal was not to be comprehensive – I barely scratched the surface – but you get the idea. You can’t make this stuff up.

And yet, much of what Trump has said, even here, is made up. Recent data shows that the President tells more than 23 lies every day, a number that has increased since the start of COVID-19.

Setting aside the bluster, Trump’s record as a President is clear, consistent, and public. So is his record as a businessman. A quick internet search will give you the facts related to his handling of race relations, the coronavirus, his record on job growth, the state of the economy, what he’s done to the environment, the company he keeps, and who has benefitted from his policies. It will also reveal that Trump has golfed 135 times since taking on the presidency at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $140 million, and that he has openly used the highest office in our country to line his own pockets.

If, after all of this, you’re still feeling good about a second Trump presidency, consider this: if Donald Trump showed up at your place of business (office, fire station, convenience store, restaurant, etc.) for an interview, what job would he be qualified for? What job would he be good at? What job would you give him? If your answer, like mine, is not a single one, then is he the right person to run our country?

Can agile principles help us become anti-racist?

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Like many people, I’ve been a sponge lately, taking in amazing books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, listening to fantastic podcasts like How Core Values Influence Diversity and Inclusion with Kim Crayton, and reading mind-blowing articles like What is Owed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now is a time for me to learn, and I’ve got years of work to do before I can claim to have gotten past the tip of the iceberg.

But I don’t have years, weeks, or even days to read, listen to, and process all of this information before taking action. I have a job to do, and a team demanding that I use my position to make positive change now. Yes, this is a time to learn, but it’s also a time to act. We’ve been patient – even with ourselves – for too long.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a terrible time to make mistakes. The stakes are high and scrutiny has never been greater. On the positive side, we’re all being held accountable for our words and actions, as we should be. On the negative side, we’re also demanding that people take risks, and mistakes can be costly.

So it seems like we need to listen, learn, and take action, and we need to do it without making mistakes. But how?

Unfortunately, we’re going to make mistakes

Unless our plan is to learn everything before we do anything, we will fail, at least occasionally. The issues we face related to racial injustice have been deeply ingrained in our society for hundreds of years, and in order for us to make things better, we’re going to have to have hard conversations and take risks. And what are the odds we’ll get it right every single time? Not very good.

If our goal is to make things better, and to do it quickly, we need a structure that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them iteratively. And here’s where I turn to the agile principle of failing fast. In agile development, when we talk about failing fast, we assume that failure is inevitable, at least some of the time. And if failure is inevitable, then the faster we do it, the faster we learn and improve. According to Ben Rossi in Information Age:

In software development, the point about “fail fast” is that if a failure is going to take place you want to reduce the time lag in a) detecting the failure, and b) relaying the detection back to the responsible developer. 

What would it mean to apply this concept to our interactions with others, to our discussions about racial injustice? If we all agreed that “detecting the failure” was step one, then we’d expect it, and we’d be grateful when it happened quickly so we could move on to step two, “relaying the detection back.” For example, if our organization unintentionally supported the wrong charity, or made well intentioned hires without supporting them well, or changed HR policies that singled people out instead of bringing them together, we could identify these errors and fix them. If we could do this without fear or judgement, imagine how quickly we’d learn and improve.

Of course, this would require that we all acknowledged up front that we’re going to make mistakes, and that this is as important as it is inevitable. We’d have to trust each other, assume positive intent, and agree not to blame or judge each other when we fail. We’d need to speak freely, without fear of unintended consequences, and we’d need to listen openly, giving others the benefit of the doubt. This sounds hard, but I think it’s possible.

Embracing the agile concept of failing fast

At the start of this post, I said what we needed to do was clear: listen, learn, and take action without making mistakes. But what if we acknowledged that mistakes will be made and leveraged a process – like agile – that helped us fail fast, correct our behavior, and learn? What if we were willing to be wrong without being defensive?

As we work towards social justice and equality, we need to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, make mistakes. And while agile philosophy may not be the silver bullet that makes us anti-racist, I do think it might offer us a viable way forward. If we embrace the concept of failing fast and use it as a way to learn, understand, and improve over time, we’ll be better able to meet the needs of each other and our teams over time. And that’s a start.

For heaven’s sake, apologize!

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It was just over a month ago, but it still makes me feel sick. I was presenting an important and sensitive topic to the team, something I’d worked hard to get right. There were two versions of the deck I’d created, and between the stress of the day and a variety of technical difficulties, I found myself presenting the wrong version to the team. The fact that this version and the scenario it described were old and outdated didn’t matter. There it was, for all to see.

The worst part of my mistake was that I wasn’t the only person who was embarrassed by it – the deck I’d accidentally presented had implications for others on the team too. It was not my best hour. In response, I did what a lot of reasonable people would have done in the same situation: I ignored the mistake and hoped it would go away.

Only – surprise! – ignoring the mistake did not make it go away. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake a full week later that the team could get past it. “I made a mistake,” I said, genuinely, “I’m really sorry I did that.”

In response, one of my team members said something that truly amazed me. “I’ve never had a boss apologize to me before,” he said, “that means a lot.” What took me so long?

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

It’s not just Elton John who thinks so. According Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today:

Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility. Apologizing temporarily reduces one’s self-esteem.  The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control.  Having announced their imperfection and error, the offender is now vulnerable.  It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.

When we apologize, we acknowledge our “imperfection and error,” which makes us feel weak and vulnerable. But we are imperfect, and we do make errors. There’s nothing weak about it at all. I’d argue that you need self-confidence in order to admit your failures. As Plato said in The Republic:

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

I used to wonder at what age I’d be smart enough to stop putting my foot in my mouth, but that was a long time ago. Now I know that age will never come, that I’ll never be that smart. I may not be “the wisest man alive,” but I know I don’t know everything. And if I don’t know everything, sometimes I’m going to get things wrong – and sometimes that will require an apology.

“Sorry” can be overused

The internet is littered with articles describing people who apologize too much. According to Greatist:

If you’re someone who throws out “sorrys” like candy from a parade float, that can be a problem. While on the surface this might seem like a polite habit, overusing any word can devalue it—and more importantly, excessive apologizing can make you look guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong.

While according to Tonic:

Apologies aren’t always helpful—and sometimes they can be excessive. This behavior may stem from anxiety or depression, although research on the topic is scarce. What we do know is that, for some, the urge to say “I’m sorry” for every little thing is involuntary and often has little to do with actual remorse.

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According to the Child Mind Institute, this is especially problematic for girls:

Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a child is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying you’re sorry too much can backfire. For instance, when a girl starts a statement by saying, “Sorry, but… ” or “I might be wrong, but …” she may think she’s being polite, but it undermines what she’s about to say. “It says ‘I don’t feel confident in what I’m about to say or my right to say it,’ ” explains Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Got it? The point is not to apologize with abandon. It’s to acknowledge that we genuinely care when our actions hurt people, and to admit that we make mistakes.

Coda

We’re actively hiring at work – we’ve got lots of open roles on my team and lots of great candidates, both internal and external. In an effort to get the word out quickly and get the ball rolling, I rushed a few job descriptions out before checking them with the hiring managers.

Can you guess what happened? Candidates had applied for a job based on a description they’d seen last month, and we were planning to interview them based on a job description we’d updated last week. Not ideal.

As a believer in the Agile Manifesto, I’m committed to welcoming change, to favoring individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and to responding to change over following a plan. I move fast. I break things. My intentions were pure, but this issue was entirely my fault. As I called each of the candidates, letting them know how and why the job they’d applied for had changed and asking them if they still wanted to apply, I made at least one thing clear.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I said, “I made a mistake.”

“No problem,” they responded, “thanks for taking the time to explain what happened. See you next week.”

 

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.