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Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette, @ContentedCows is an executive coach and business author who helps clients build lasting competitive edge by eliminating blind-spots and improving leadership habits.

Memphis • June 15, 2019


Almost universally, the leaders I have the good fortune to coach find that one of the skills they most need to work on is listening… really listening. That need has been ever-present, but in an age when we’re attempting to multi-task, to compress more activity into each day, and babbling more (because we can), the time and energy spent listening is decidedly on the wane. Lest there be any doubt, the people around us have noticed. Indeed, lack of listening has been a top tier item of concern on every engagement survey I've seen in the last three years.


Because of the aforementioned activity compression, when interacting with others, we do basically two things: We talk, and then while the other person is saying whatever is on their mind, we formulate our reply, while sorta hearing them in the background. In short, rather than listening, we’ve been “waiting to talk.” And because very few of us have decent acting skills, our feigned listening (I so wanted to use the work f_ke but couldn’t bring myself to it) is noticed, every time. Three suggestions that you may find useful:


  1. Tolerate “Dead-Air” - Rather than allowing your lips to fly open the very nanosecond the other person stops talking, pause for a few seconds and ponder what they just said...                           Trust me, just as you just encountered an inch of horizontal white space on this page, it won’t ruin anything if you both endure a few seconds of silence.
  2. Notice Their Eye Color - Don’t ask me why this works, but it seems that the very act of noticing something about the other person seems to disrupt our urge to respond a bit, a wee bit.
  3. Take Notes - That’s right, go old school and physically make notes of what the other person is saying as they are saying it. Not only will you understand and remember it better, your note taking is a measure of respect that won’t soon be lost on the other person.


Lastly, this isn’t a suggestion, but a command, and you know what’s coming:  Please put the damned device away, where it will distract no one. Siri will not get angry if you put her in your pocket or purse for a while.



Memphis • June 2, 2019

by Bill Catlette

Yesterday, on International Flight Attendants Day, I was reminded of two things:


  1. My admiration and appreciation for the women (mostly) and men who work hard to assure our safety and relative comfort when traveling by commercial air.
  2. The phrase that I’ve heard them use more than five thousand times in the interest of safety: “Please put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.”


At first blush, the oxygen mask thing sounds a little selfish until you contemplate the reality that, without oxygen at cruise altitude, you will be quickly transported on a one-way journey to a destination other than the one intended. That same principle holds true for managers: We’e got to get our own act squared away before having any hope of successfully leading others. To wit, good managers take pains to always be in game form with things like:


  1. Management of Time and Priorities
  2. Having the Courage to do things like look people in the eye and tell them the truth  
  3. Having a solid process for Making and then Executing Hard Decisions
  4. Being willing to Subordinate Self-Interest for the good of the group and its mission
  5. Being ever mindful that our Professional Reputation is largely a product of setting a good example


The best leaders we’ve encountered make it their business to always have people around them who will level with them (no matter what), challenge them to get better at this stuff, and work with them to find ways of doing just that. In our business we call that coaching.

Retuning Your Talent Hunt for a Tight Labor Market

 By Bill Catlette

Earlier this week, we completed a 4-part webinar series on “Finding Great People” for the management and ownership team of a Florida-based business.The webinars focused on ways to counter the headwinds faced by businesses in an ever-tightening labor market. Here are three quick takeaways from these programs:


  1. Recruiters Can’t Do It Alone - In the same fashion that small and medium-sized businesses count on everyone to do some selling, today’s labor market necessitates everyone contributing to the recruiting effort, using their network to broadcast openings, make referrals, and participate in the interview process where appropriate. Smart managers see to it that such efforts are appropriately encouraged, recognized, and well rewarded.
  2. Talent Hunting is an Always-On Process - As I suggested to one of our client’s senior leaders, the odds of a great candidate having a hole in their dance card at the exact moment that a job in his business opened up are remote indeed. To wit, the hunt for talent, especially for core jobs needs to be an always-on proposition, even to the point that good candidates are occasionally taken on in advance of the need.
  3. The Recruitment Process Needs to Get a Lot Friendlier - One easy way of doing this is to use ample doses of information, artfully presented, to make it easier for applicants to screen themselves out of the process. Another involves apprising candidates as to their status on as near to a real-time basis as possible. This second factor has been an annoyance to job candidates forever, and with the advent of ATS and all manner of information handling tools, there is no good reason for it to continue.

Oh, and one last thing, show your recruiters some love. They’ve been working their tails off for a while now.


by Bill Catlette




Like bolts from the blue, less than a month before the expected announcement of his Presidential plans, former VP Joe Biden, who has been in the national spotlight for nearly fifty years, and under the watchful eyes of a U.S. Secret Service detail for the last decade, is beset by allegations that several years ago he “inappropriately touched” or “violated the space” of a small but growing list of women.


For the record, I don’t doubt the claims of the women involved, at least the two we’ve heard from thus far, or Mr. Biden’s recollection of events, together with his pledge to “be more mindful about respecting personal space.” Yet, I’m given to wonder if we were not in the midst of a federal election campaign in which he is a likely candidate, would anything have been said at all?


Having met Mr. Biden, I can vouch for the fact that, as an old-school politician, he is warm, effusive, spontaneous, and prone to grip, grin, and embrace, regardless of age, race, or gender. If he is an offender, he is of the equal opportunity variety. VP Biden is, after all, the one who congratulated President Barack Obama on global television with a hug and the comment (about the passage of the Affordable Care Act), “This is a big f***ing deal!”


So What?

  1. As a grandparent of three granddaughters, I certainly want them protected, both now and upon reaching adult status, from creeps who might harm them or use power against them for corrupt purposes. Yet, I hope that doesn’t mean they have to grow up in a nation that is so antiseptic and bereft of warmth that a well meaning friend, teacher, neighbor, coach, pastor, or boss has to think twice about putting his (or her) arm around them or giving them a hug. They’ve been well taught, and I’m betting they can fend for themselves.
  2. As an executive coach who works hard to see more women advance into meaningful leadership roles, I worry that the ascendance of talented, deserving women is being retarded by male execs who are beginning to be afraid to be in a room alone with a female contemporary, let alone travel with her on business. Yes, I know that flies in the face of some miscreants who got entirely too comfortable with coworkers, but they are a distinct minority. Though I don’t yet see that fear as rational, it is nonetheless real, and present today. In too many cases, the tie is going to the guy in competitive situations for this reason alone, and that’s the last thing we need.


Now What?

In sorting out how to handle such situations in our own lives we should ask ourselves: Is this a common variety irritation to my senses, or is it something truly special, i.e., an assault on my person or senses? To keep things in perspective, let’s bear in mind that, with varying degrees of injury or annoyance, our space is violated just about every day:


  • By food service workers who cough or sneeze in our direction without covering up
  • By someone who sits in a crowded space participating in a phone call, or watching a YouTube video on their cellphone sans earbuds
  • By retail “security” personnel who think we’ve stolen some tomatoes or a roasted chicken as we go thru the self-checkout
  • By the woman who opens a bottle of fingernail polish remover in a crowded subway car
  • By the TSA agent who patted you down not because they needed to, but because they could


Practically speaking, we’ve got two options in such circumstances: Say (or do) something right then and there to alter the behavior, or remove ourselves from it. Or, press DELETE and get on with life. Our response time ought not be years as it has been with Mr. Biden’s detractors, but something closer to the “5-second rule” that some apply to food spillage that hits the floor.


It helps to say something that is clear, yet “assumes positive intent” (thank you Indra Nooyi) on the other person’s part, e.g., “I’m going to write this incident off as an accident… this time. Let’s both make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I try to operate with a simple test in such cases, asking myself if: Six months from now, is anybody going to remember or care? If the answer is “no”, I drop the matter, and drop means drop.


SAVE AS really isn’t an option unless you’re willing to let the behavior accrete. Collecting grievances to carry around with us for future use may play well in reality TV shows, but not for adults in real life. We’ve got far greater things to concern ourselves with… opportunities to seize, and problems to starve.


Going forward, I’ll show some of my better behavior if you will do the same. Let’s get on with it.

Stop Ghosting, Keep Your Word, Your Reputation. It’s All You’ve Got!

Lately, I’ve observed unprecedented levels of people ghosting scheduled appointments. One involved a wasted 400-mile drive (grr!). I learned of others in conversation with two independent businesswomen, both of whom complained of NCNS by clients with confirmed appointments. Still others reported that post-interview ghosting by corporate recruiters remains very much in vogue, and as aggravating as it has always been.

At a time when as individuals and businesses we spend $billions burnishing our image, why would you want to blow that investment by doing something that can only be attributed to clueless rudeness? It’s not like we don’t walk around with technology that will make, keep track of, and remind us of appointments, then effortlessly cancel those appointments upon a simple voice command. Moreover, this behavior seems to ignore the fact that that same technology can just as readily be used to publicly besmirch our reputation for engaging in such behavior. So, why would you want to? C’mon man! This isn’t hard. 

Memphis • 02/25/19 


Our work with leaders in the healthcare, hospitality, and financial services sectors often begins with some derivative of the statement, “I can’t get enough managers (all levels) hired, trained, and performing adequately. Can you help?” Though the perceived need often is for the delivery of more or better leadership development, the reality is that’s often a “right church, wrong pew” scenario, stemming from the fact that we’re asking too much of our leadership development resources. How so?


  1. Late to the game. Most of those being moved into 1st-time leadership roles are transitioning without the benefit of ANY leader preparation. That’s akin to giving a person a scalpel, scrubs, and a license to practice medicine prior to any med school. The results are entirely predictable.
  2. Square peg, round hole. Too often, those promoted into management lack vital but untrainable attributes like courage, character and humility. Odds are, they can’t learn it, and you can’t teach it.
  3. Bad examples. In too many cases, the example that’s being set for our newfound leaders to follow and emulate is, in a word, awful.


To summarize, we’re failing to screen for vital, ‘factory installed’ leadership attributes, putting outsized burdens on precious learning & development resources by injecting their talents too late to be effective, and in general not putting enough attention into the example and reinforcement of good leadership habits. So, with apologies for the cowboy logic, our advice to clients and others is that they:


  1. Stop throwing new leaders into the deep end of the pool absent adequate core skills preparation (managing time and priorities, coaching skills, how to recruit and select, the essence of leadership, and organization-specific need to knows.)
  2. Stop trying to build the leadership bench with people who lack leadership pre-requisites. 
  3. Let’s be a lot more mindful of the example we’re setting for the newer leaders in our trail.


Given proper focus on these items, our newer leaders will be a lot better off at year end than they are now, and so will we.



Playing Favorites

by Bill Catlette

Key West • 1/1/19

Several of our recent employee engagement survey projects have indicated the presence of elevated levels of perceived favoritism within the surveyed population. It has occurred enough to cause us to pause and probe further for understanding. We've not yet wrapped our arms completely around the universal (as opposed to organization-specific) learnings, but here’s one consistent theme that has emerged.


Attributed mainly to the movement of very large numbers of people into first time management roles over the last decade, mostly without the benefit of any leadership development, we are seeing these emerging leaders learn how to ‘get the daily wash out’ by leaning hardest on those team members who prove themselves to be capable workhorses. That stands to reason, but so does the inevitable employee response. Not wanting to be taken advantage of, those who find themselves doing extra work seek extra consideration.


And they get it, in whatever currency the new manager has at their disposal: Preferential time off, plum assignments, special dispensation for minor infractions, extra visibility, opportunity to learn, et. al. Meanwhile, since this isn't taking place in a vacuum, others notice and begin to wonder (and seethe) about why they aren’t sharing in the largesse. This is particularly evident and inflammatory to a population whose education and social orientation has been largely thru the lens of a group project environment rather than a meritocracy. So there you have it. What do you do about it?


You can only ignore the object in the punchbowl for so long. Here are three suggestions:

That Leadership Bench Won’t Grow Itself

by Bill Catlette



Better than half of newly appointed, first-time business leaders fail in their first two years, resulting in their removal from position, either voluntary or otherwise. I hesitate to wonder how many more are left to quietly and more slowly drown on their own.


If new doctors failed at that same rate, hospitals might find it necessary to build larger morgues to temporarily house their mistakes. In the business world, we wonder about persistently low employee engagement levels and why, in an era when there are more microchips deployed than ever, our national productivity growth rate remains mired in the basement. Subprime leadership from ill-prepared managers has a lot to do with it.


By the time a new physician is allowed to practice medicine on their own in the U.S., they will have completed seven to twelve years of post-grad medical education, complete with certified, hands-on training, medical residency, and strict licensure protocols. By contrast, elevation to a leadership role in most organizations (including healthcare) is a lot quicker. It often goes something like this: When there is an entry level management position vacancy, the job will often be awarded to a team member who is recognized by virtue of their production, seniority, or butt kissing skills, not necessarily in that order. Overlooking the fact that moving from individual contributor to leader is one of the hardest career transitions to make, the promotee is often informed of the good news on Friday, and told, “You’ve got all weekend to get ready.”


Though I am a strong proponent of promoting from within, we owe these people more, a lot more than simply blessing them with corporate holy water before we put them in charge of a significant chunk of our business, and ten other humans. Aside from seeing to it that they possess requisite factory-installed leadership qualities like judgment, courage, resilience, and humility, there are at least four other things that they need to be working on from day one (preferably before).


  1. Learning to be a good listener. Many new leaders want to work on their presentation skills (likely the result of having endured some really crummy presentations), and they should, but far more leaders flame out because of bad listening skills.
  2. Becoming a master of their time and priorities. First and 2nd level leaders spend most of their day drinking thru a firehose, with more stuff coming at them then they can ever digest. If they don’t quickly become a master of their priorities, they will drown. Part of the battle in managing one’s priorities pertains to having the courage and the wisdom to say “No” to things that belong on someone else’s plate or whose time has not yet come. At the core, managers get paid to think, and if there is no thinking time available to them, they cannot succeed.
  3. Realizing that leadership is not about them. Repeat, it is not about them. Rather, it’s about the mission, and the team. “First, you feed the troops.”
  4. Developing good methods by which they might properly recruit, select, and coach top quality teammates. For some crazy reason, most of us seem to assume that these skills are factory installed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Two thoughts about meeting this need: First, when pinned down about things that keep them awake at night, CEO’s invariably list the relative shortness of their leadership bench, to wit, if an honest review of your learning and development strategy and associated budget doesn’t reveal serious attention being committed to leader development, you’ve got real work to do.


Second, and more immediately, please don’t let another day pass without shoring up the support mechanisms for newly promoted leaders. Make that one of your priorities. If, like many you lack the internal resources to deliver even the aforementioned modicum of new leader development at the point of need, seriously consider pairing emerging leaders with professional leadership coaches, who can act as their Sherpa for portions of the journey.


Whatever path you choose, get on with it. Time is not your friend, that bench isn’t growing by itself, and competitors are gnawing away at it.

Leadership Is About Blood, Sweat, Fears, and Occasional Tears

by Bill Catlette

Memphis 6/21/18 

In the time that I’ve served in a leadership role, in both for profit and non-profit venues, I have tried mightily to operate with a short list of simple, understandable maxims, like…


  • Take pains to hire adults, and treat them as such
  • Ensure that, from day one, everyone on the team understands and shares our mission, values, and priorities
  • Set high expectations for everyone (especially leaders) for conduct and performance
  • Care about people, and act like it, even when the wheels are coming off


Do these guardrails completely preclude making mistakes and hitting bumps in the road? Of course not. Every successful journey involves some potholes, but also a lot of unmitigated joy at being able to do great work while in the company of capable and Committed (capital ‘C’ intentional) teammates. Here are a handful of ideas that make that a little more possible:


Leaders Need to Be Blood Donors

Part of my deal with teammates is that as long as you’re behaving lawfully, as an adult, and doing what you genuinely believe to be “the right thing”, I will have your back, period. More than a few times I’ve had to back that up and endure a visit to the corporate woodshed because we made a mistake, and someone above me in the food chain wanted to see some blood. Fair enough. I believe that leaders, at every level, should be frequent blood donors for good causes. But in return, over the years I have gotten the full measure of effort and Commitment from hundreds of people who otherwise might not have been so generous. As a result, we’ve generally earned a reputation for getting more done, and had fun (mostly) doing it. If as a leader you’re not operating with at least one warning letter in your file, you’re probably not risking enough skin. 



Leadership is about sweating the little stuff, like:


Finding out how your people learn best - Out of respect for the different adult learning styles, I suggest strongly that leaders make it a point to learn early on (pre-hire) what the career / developmental aspirations and preferred learning style are for every potential new hire. Understanding (really understanding) how people learn best is just as important as knowing what they need or want to learn. Do they want to take in new information via the ears, the printed word, a demonstration, or a concrete experience? Paying attention to this small point will enhance the learning experience for everyone, while accelerating the process.


Getting new people engaged in their work ASAP - For two decades, our employee surveys have given credence to the notion that new employees often lose a lot of their verve during the first year on the job, so getting the on-boarding thing right is vital. Beginning on day one, if not sooner, give people the opportunity and encouragement to learn by getting immersed in what they were hired to do. Don’t immediately throw them in the deep end of the pool and walk off, but the sooner they can be meaningfully involved in their new job, the better. The same goes for quickly getting them up to speed on the ways and means of the organization, the cultural indoctrination if you will. Show them the secret handshakes a little sooner, okay? Check in with them regularly, not only to gauge how their experience is going, but also to learn about anything that might be slowing them down, and conversely, who, if anyone has been especially helpful to them. Make sure that their early initiation is being guided by your best and brightest, not just whoever happens to be available. One of the absolute worst things you can do is to put a new hire under the tutelage of someone who has mediocre skills and /or a rotten demeanor.


Coaching More, Bossing Less - One of the best ways to develop and retain A-players is to make sure people get frequent coaching, right from the start. Unlike most bosses, who tend to focus primarily on mistakes, a good coach focuses first and foremost on identifying and optimizing the player’s strengths, and then on mitigating weaknesses. Leaders who take a sincere and abiding interest in the development of their teammates are much more inclined to get the benefit of loyalty and discretionary effort.



It takes courage to be a leader, and that courage is a commodity that can neither be bought nor obtained in a course at your favorite university. Showing courage is not about an absence of fear. Rather, it’s more about recognizing a dangerous or uncertain situation for what it is, and then deciding to saddle up and face it. You’re scared, but you go anyhow. Courageous leaders…


  1. Speak truth to power. Smart leaders know when, where, and how to do that.
  2. Realize that waiting until all the facts are known causes a lot of lost opportunities.
  3. Take pains to earn and maintain a reservoir of goodwill, which stands them in good stead when an exercise of courage fails or backfires.


Each of us must find our own mechanisms for putting fear in its proper place and demonstrating the courage that our work requires. Absent that, no one is going to follow us for very long.



People don’t always live up to their promise, their capability, or the standards imposed by the organization. In other cases, we at times discover that the individual and the organization simply are not cut out for one another. Either way, it becomes the leader’s duty to recognize the matter and deal with it, fairly, affirmatively, and sooner rather than later.


Saying goodbye to someone in a work relationship is seldom easy, on either side of the fence. Yet, experience suggests that better outcomes will be achieved when we act with consideration, decency, and pace. No one’s interests are well served by avoiding a difficult conversation. Have it.




If you've got more to add on this subject, or care to take the discussion further, we would be glad to hear from you.


With employment markets in the U.S. continuing to tighten, labor-intensive businesses are seeking candidates on the margins, and in some cases outside the mainstream, in an effort to fill current openings without getting into an all-out bidding war for talent. Recently, there has been considerable discussion around H1B visa hiring strategies, increased PT to FT conversion, and the growing number of employers who are now willing to hire non-violent criminal offenders, some of whom are still behind bars.

There is another, even larger market available, which is essentially untapped, and that is the strategic use of retirees and alumni as a source of candidate referrals or contract labor.

I got fairly snarky recently with a colleague who runs HR for a large (400,000 employee) company and was whining a bit about having a dearth of candidates.We discussed the fact that they have about 40,000 employees who leave the company annually, probably 80% of whom are classified as retirees or other regrettable turnover. When asked what measures they use to maintain contact with those people, the answer was. “none.” So, “You’ve got about 100 people with whom you are on perfectly good terms leaving here every day, and you do nothing to maintain a relationship or goodwill with them?” Sadly, the same is true for many of us. Yikes!

As but one example of how this can pay off, consider the case of 71 year-old Tom Coughlin, the original head coach of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars circa 1994 who rejoined the team this season after a 15-year stint with the NY Giants, where he picked up two SuperBowl rings. The guy clearly knows football, and he knows leadership.

Though Coughlin likely wanted to resume a head coaching role with the Jags, team owner, Shahid Khan managed to convince him that his best role, both for him and the team, would be to sign on as EVP, Football Operations where his coaching would mainly be with head coach Doug Marrone and the team’s young GM, David Caldwell. As evidenced by the fact that the Jags made it deep into the 2018 NFL playoffs for the first time in a long time, it’s apparently working.

A few ideas from the cheap seats:

  1. Expand your base of applicant sources. I continue to be amazed at the number of otherwise well-run companies that rely almost exclusively on passive, single-source recruiting via walk-in, type-in sources for non-executive roles. That is akin to being in a sales role and waiting all day for customers to come find you, unaided by any effort whatsoever on your part! Aside from mining referrals from incumbent employees and alumni, consider doing things like co-sponsoring recruiting activities with business partners, taking on a larger presence in schools and colleges (I do b-school guest lectures as a way of getting a sneak peek at the talent farm), and sponsoring student activities.
  2. Use Longer Lead-times and Always Be Looking. Unless you’re just incredibly lucky, recruiting that is done purely on an as-needed basis is a terribly inefficient process. You’re much better off keeping your nets in the water, and establishing a relationship with viable candidates in advance of an actual need, or preemptively hiring them in some cases.
  3. Get More Adaptive With Women and Graybeards. Already this decade, about 4% of prime working-age women have removed themselves from the American workforce, and, as we speak, about 10,000 people “retire” daily. In each case, that’s not necessarily what people want to do. Rather, it’s often our clunky HR policies and methods that drives them prematurely from the workforce. Let’s get better at listening to these folks, and adapting to what they are trying to tell us.
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