Tag Archives: leadership

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.

Feeling overwhelmed? Channel Kurt Vonnegut and get to work.

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Every company I’ve been a part of has had more work to do than people to do it. (Has there ever been a company with too many people and not enough work to do? Not for long.) Sometimes the gap between need and output is relatively small, and a team can almost keep up, but more often – especially if a company is aggressive about identifying opportunities – the gap is much, much bigger.

This can lead to lots of frustration. In my last post, I wrote about how great leaders help their teams win by defining success in ways that are achievable. In this post, I’ll focus on getting to work and making it manageable.

My current product organization is responsible for a lot more products than we have teams, including nearly a dozen products built by companies we’ve acquired over the past two years. Inevitably, at any given time, there are products we’re not working on, or even thinking much about. This can be hard to stomach. But the reality is that we’ll never have enough people or time to adequately address all of the issues and opportunities in front of us. In order to wrap our heads around the challenge, we need a different way to think about it.

That’s where I turn to Kurt Vonnegut.

In his article, On the Work to be Done, first published in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Vonnegut writes brilliantly in the topic of getting to work. Although he’s writing about building a better world, Vonnegut’s words apply to building better software too. Here goes:

As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.

He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say 200 acres.

I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.

If God had given Adam and Eve the entire world, what would they have done? It’s easy to imagine them running naked through the jungle, shaking their fists, fighting back tears, screaming, “we’re not ready to take care of all these animals – we don’t even have clothes yet!”

In Vonnegut’s telling, God doesn’t overwhelm Adam and Eve, he gives them “some small part of the planet” – just as much as they can handle.  Adam and Eve weren’t responsible for the entire planet, I remind my team, and you’re not responsible for the entire platform. You’re divided into product teams for a reason, so that one group can focus on financial management while another focuses on mobile applications and so on. If you try to eat the elephant (or the forbidden apple?) in one bite, you’ll get sick. Vonnegut continues:

What painters and sculptors and writers do, incidentally, is put very small properties indeed into good order, as best they can.

A painter thinks, “I can’t fix the whole planet, but I can at least make this square of canvas what it ought to be.” And a sculptor thinks the same thing about a lump of clay or marble. A writer thinks the same about a piece of paper, conventionally eleven inches long and eight-and-a-half inches wide.

A product manager is responsible for creating an awesome product. A user experience designer is responsible for creating an awesome experience. A software architect is responsible for creating an awesome technical architecture. And so on. Often this work happens incrementally, over time. The good and bad news? The work is never done.

So here’s the challenge: take your 200 acres (or lines of code) and put them in decent order. Make them exactly what they’re meant to be, or make them even better. After that, there’ll be another 200 acres to worry about, and then another 200 acres after that.

That sounds manageable, right?

“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.