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Daily Dairy from Contented Cows

by Bill Catlette 


 Knowing exactly what would come of it, US Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer refused an order from his supervisor (issued at the direction of POTUS), to stand down on a disciplinary matter involving one of the country’s elite special forces. As a result, he was asked for his resignation. In reality, he was likely told that, in exchange for having refused to carry out a lawful order, he could resign or be fired. Having been in a similar position in my career, I can vouch for the fact that it is a lonely position. In an instant you go from being liked and respected to radioactive road kill, admired from afar perhaps, but unemployed (aka "in transition") nonetheless.


What Mr. Spencer did is what good leaders everywhere should be willing to do, consequences and all. Why, you ask? Why should a person take responsibility for exercising independent judgment on a matter of principle, in the face of an order from ‘above’, from someone senior to them? Why not just do what you’re told? In truth, more often than not we’re well advised to suppress our judgment, salute, and execute. But there are times when doing so is taking the unprincipled or chicken way out. This was just such a time.


As a leader, you’ve doubtless told (overtly or by your position) a team of people who answer to you that you’ve got their back, and that barring circumstances where it would be unlawful, unsafe, unethical, or flat out impossible to do so, in the absence of contravening policy, you’re going to do what you feel is right, for both the individual and the group, and the chips will have to fall where they may.


One of the essential unteachable requirements of leadership is courage… Having the courage to say “No, that’s not good enough; we’re not going to do that,” or in matters of significant consequence and debate, “I see it differently.” With opposing orders in hand, when you walk out on that plank, you pretty well know how the opera is going to end, but you’ve got to have the backbone to do it. If you’re unwilling or unable to do that, you have no business asking others to walk thru fire for you. So, in that case, do yourself and those around you a favor and find something else to do for a living. Conversely, if you're okay with the prospect of someday having to take that walk, come on in. We need you.

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There’s one simple change that you and your team can make that’ll yield happier customers right away, and it means simply purging your language of one four-word phrase.

Over the last few months, service providers who I’m sure didn’t mean to be rude, made each of the following pronouncements to me (and many more like them) while doing their jobs:

You’re gonna have to fill this out for me.

You’re gonna have to call back later.

You’re gonna have to go online and authorize the change before we can accept it.

You’re gonna have to move your bag on its back so we can close the overhead bin. (After being told, “You’re gonna have to put that on its side so we can accommodate more bags.”)

You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes for that.

You’re gonna have to go inside to the counter for them to make that change.

You’re gonna have to call your health insurance company and tell them they’re gonna have to call us about that. (How’s that for a double example?)

What are the four words? Did I give you enough clues?

by Bill Catlette

Nov. 9, 2019


In a recent conversation with a mid-level manager, we discussed his concern about members of his team getting in periodic spats with their contemporaries in another department, an internal client organization. “It’s pretty much out in the open” he said, before adding, “… and I have no doubt that it is impeding our levels of productivity and service.”


When pressed to explain the root cause, he mumbled something about pay grade jealousy stemming from the fact that his folks were paid less than their organizational peers in the other department. While he and I were talking, he took a call from his director-level peer in the other organization. By virtue of overhearing one-half of their rather frosty conversation, I witnessed the real cause of the dustup… The two of them, in full view of their respective teams, were, for some unknown reason, busily throwing rocks over the fence at one another, and people on the other side.


“So what do I do? “he asked. Believing that a coach’s best value is achieved when they help clients discover a path that will work best for them, rather than tell them what to do, I responded with a couple questions of my own:  When the SVP that you and this other guy both report to learns of this, if she hasn’t already, how is that going to go down with her? “Umm, not well, for either of us.” So, I asked, “Do you want to handle this preemptively on your own, or would you rather wait until the person who does your respective performance reviews and pay recommendations tells you to do it?”


“Do you think a ‘Let’s Make Peace Lunch’ would work” he asked?” I indicated that it seemed a good start, that he should probably initiate the conversation, and do it soon.


Time will tell how their lunch went, but in the meantime, let’s accept the reminder that the “enemy” doesn’t reside in a department down the hall. Rather, they are on the other side of the field on the competitor’s bench. Those are the ones who would take food out of the mouths of your babies. To be sure we sometimes need to disagree or have tough conversations with our teammates, but we should do it professionally, in the locker room, out of view, and when it’s over, it's over. That way, when the next play goes off, we’re on the same side of the ball, with hearts and minds aligned.

It’s About How You Make Them Feel!

by Bill Catlette

Memphis • 10/20/19

In a recent session with a coaching client, I asked her view of the key tenets of leadership. Responding thoughtfully yet crisply, she talked about the importance of the leader first having their own act squared away, of providing a clear sense of purpose and direction, fielding (and keeping) a talented, motivated team, maintaining a trusting environment, sharing information adequately… At he end of the day, she said, “It’s about the mission (how you make it clear, compelling, focus like a laser on it) and the team (how you equip them and make them feel).” Ding!


So, how do you make your team feel? Involved, or mushroomed? Cared about, or neglected? Listened to, or ignored? Valued, or taken for granted? Challenged, or bored silly?  An important part of a winning organization, or just a cog in a wheel? And yes, it matters... a lot.


Learning and development professionals tell us that $billions are spent each year in the U.S. on professional development. Having worked in that arena for better than two decades, I agree with that characterization, and hasten to add that a good bit of that money (and time) is being misspent. Rather, it is being wasted. Why? Two reasons: The efforts and expenditure are not particularly focused (well targeted), and they are almost never followed up. Let’s talk about that last one a bit because it harbors a lot of low hanging fruit.


We tend to treat such efforts as events… We read the book, watch the webinar, hear the speech, attend the seminar, (WHAT) roll over, and move on to something else, without much thought or planning regarding how (if at all) we’re going to interpret (SO WHAT) and apply any learnings (NOW WHAT) to our own situation.


The small bandage on my right arm at the moment reminds me that I had blood drawn this morning for a CBC blood test. In a few days my physician and I will review the results, discuss his interpretation and action plan steps to take in order to maintain and improve my health. To be sure, we’ll track results over time.


In our professional lives, we tend to draw the blood and just move on, with little to no consideration for the “So What” (make meaning) and “Now What” (take action) parts. A suggestion:


As leaders, it is our duty to at all times be aware of the developmental needs of our team, and provide teammates with opportunities to close the gaps. But it mustn’t stop there. It’s incumbent upon us to verify that:


The learning opportunity was what we and they hoped and expected it to be…The desired learning did in fact occur, and… That the new knowledge or understanding is being applied. Here’s a simple suggestion in that vein. Whenever someone on your team participates in a formal learning event or process, immediately upon the conclusion, personally ask them:


1. What they learned, relative to what they had hoped to learn,

2. How they plan to apply it,

3. What help they need (if any) and

4. How they want to be held accountable for doing so.


Try it. I think you’ll be amazed at the difference.

My friend, business partner, and co-author Bill Catlette is passionate about many things, not the least of which is fishing. And he’s good at it. One reason for his success may be something he told me the first time he took this novice out for a day on the water: “I’ve never had a fish jump, voluntarily, into the boat,” he told me. “I always have to keep a line in the water.”
The same goes for recruiting talent to help grow and power your organization.
Audience members often tell us, “There’s no one out there who’s qualified to fill all these jobs we have.” Nonsense. They’re out there. They’re all just working somewhere else! Have you really been looking?
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that about 40 million people will quit their jobs this year. Not fired. Not laid off. Quit. Of their own volition. Presumably to move on to something better.
Furthermore, the BLS says that more than 25% of employees nationwide are actively looking for a new job. Right now. Both Forbes and Inc magazines ran articles recently, claiming the real number is actually more than 50%.
Think about that. If unemployment is at nearly at an all-time low, where are these people conducting their job searches from ? Gulp…
If so many people, who already have jobs, are actively looking, shouldn’t you be doing the same from the other end of the telescope?
  • Keep your line in the water, and your eyes wide open. The Associated Press recently published a story about CEO Deborah Sweeney, who was so impressed with a barista at her local Starbucks that she wondered if the young woman, who could obviously “manage an environment where there’s a lot coming at you and...stay responsive and keep a good attitude” might be a good fit for her company. She hired her, and Sweeney’s speculation proved valid; “She turned out to be a rock star,” the CEO reported.

In the work world, “Culture” represents the values, norms, aims, customs, rules, the way of life if you will of an organization. It is an amalgam of the non-talent ingredients required to be happy, productive, and successful in that organization at a particular time.

For nearly 30 years, I have been one of the louder proponents, (see “Contented Cows” leadership book series) of the notion that, in order to form and maintain a high performance labor-intensive organization, it is vital to have a collection of people who can live with and perform well within a particular culture. As a result, I’ve been (and remain) a zealot about the notion that achieving cultural fit with prospective teammates must be one of, if not THE first aim of corporate recruiters and hiring managers. A person who is magnificently “qualified” by virtue of talent, skill, and experience, but whose pace, preference, values, temperament, et. al. are out of sync with organizational norms will almost certainly not be a good long term fit.

Before going any further, let’s clear something up: Within the context of a workplace, culture has nothing, repeat, nothing to do with diversity, or socio-ethnic characteristics. Have there been occasions where culture creep or misguided leadership have allowed something more resembling a ‘club’ to form underneath the culture umbrella? You betcha. It’s not pretty to watch, and seldom ends well.

In a recent tweet, Katrina Kibben posed the question, “Can you be a culture fit if you’re a culture add?” BTW, if you spend time anywhere near the talent zone, read her stuff, because it’s really good. Anyhow, here’s my take:

Cultural conditions and requirements change… they evolve with the organization. Having been involved with FedEx (nee Federal Express) in its infancy thru teen years, I was witness to (okay, neck-deep in) the organization morphing from newborn to teen to young adult status. Revisiting this evolution thru the lens of my own employment with the firm, in eleven years, I went from being a very good cultural fit and a happy, very productive  purple-blooded warrior to one where it was time for me to go. The main limiting factor in my case was discomfort in adapting from a “what lines?” coloring style to a highly bureaucratic mode which, by necessity, becomes the norm when you cram 100,000 people into a highly integrated machine traveling at 550 mph. The person who took my place was in fact a “culture add”, and should probably have been on the company’s radar a year or two sooner.

So what? Why am I taking up 4 minutes of your life with this? Two reasons:

    1. The first thing that Katrina’s question sparked for me is the realization that we (business and organizational leaders) need to do a better job of tending our organizational culture, making sure that it  is (and will remain) appropriate for the organization as time passes and requirements change.
    2. You’ve no doubt noticed that in many respects, labor markets have gotten extremely tight. In the US, for example, there are currently somewhere around 7.5 million job vacancies. By virtue of the fact that many of us practice reactive recruiting, the pressure is on to put reasonably qualified butts in seats ASAP, without much consideration for cultural fit. We’ll pay for that, and so will you, or your successor if you succumb to the pressure.

In the words of Fleetwood Mac, when it comes to organizational culture, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." 

Improve Your Talent Hunts… Get Good With Crayons

 July 1, 2019 • Memphis

Much has been written and said recently about the incidence rate of job candidates’ outright refusal of job offers, and the unprecedented ghosting of interviews and start dates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that one central cause of this behavior rests outside the terms of the deal. Rather, many candidates are balking because they’re not particularly wowed by your story, especially the part about the organization’s core purpose, where you’re going, and the chance that they’ll actually get to make a difference. I think we can agree that recruiters are having to work too hard to face this headwind. So, what can you do?


In his book, Beating the Street, legendary money manager, Peter Lynch posited that investors who can’t explain a company’s core purpose and strategy with a simple blunt instrument, a crayon, have no business investing in the company because they don’t understand it well enough.

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:

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:

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?

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.

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:

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