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Helping New Leaders Stay Out of the Weeds

by Bill Catlette

Nearly every day we witness or experience the net effect of people having been thrust into front-line leadership roles without being vetted for leadership capability, and without the benefit of any management training. The evidence pile consists of long lines at retail shops because managers don’t know how to recruit, surly or inattentive front line employees who’ve not been coached, corrected, or had their own needs attended to, lowered performance standards that owe to a manager who sees their role as being more of a buddy than a leader, or staff vacancies because A-players got tired of having to work with turkeys and voted with their feet.

It’s the equivalent of tossing someone into the deep end of a pool and walking away, or, from the new leader’s perspective, stepping into the batter’s box with 2 strikes already against you. With frightening, yet predictable regularity, they flounder, gasp for air, and take untold numbers of people down with them, at immense personal and institutional cost. This doesn’t have to happen.

Here is some admittedly tactical advice for helping your new leaders stay out of the weeds:

Growing Pains - How Do I Fit in Around Here?

Richard Hadden

"If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you."

- Steve Jobs


People involved in the work of any organization, large, small, or somewhere in between, need to know how they fit in with the purpose of the enterprise. This doesn’t get any easier with growth. In small startups, everybody’s doing everything, including taking out the trash, and the customer line of sight is short, and straight.

But as we grow, it’s virtually inevitable that people will begin to lose sight of where they fit in and how their contribution matters.

In the 21 years that Contented Cow Partners has been in business (no, we can’t believe it either), we’ve worked with some companies that grew substantially, by acquisition, organic means, or both, during the time we worked with them. I remember, specifically, one CEO telling me, “When we had 300 employees, and I knew every one of them, it was easy for most of us to make the connection between our work and our customer. Now that we’re twice that size, we have to work four times as hard to keep that connection as strong.”

It's Not About the Phones

Richard Hadden

If I hear this question one more time… I won’t be surprised. “How do we get these people to get off their phones and get their work done?”

First point: it’s not about the phones. The phones are irrelevant. They simply represent yet another distraction, and, let’s be honest, a tool which most of us (irrespective of generation) have rendered pretty much indispensable.

Second point: Please don’t rely on the law to solve this problem for you. It has little potential to do so.

In a day and age when we ask people to be electronically available more or less 24/7, we can’t really ask them to put away their phones when we want them to, but take them out when we need them to.

Last week, before speaking to an audience of 900 farming professionals in Chicago, I heard some sage advice from a successful entrepreneur whose farm provides fuel, food, and fibers to a large portion of the US, regarding this very subject. Here’s what he told me:

“I tell our folks, ‘You have a job to do. Here’s what we need, what we expect. I’ll reward you generously for meeting and exceeding our production goals, and for doing it the right way. Falling short will cost you. Because it costs me.

Sometimes Leaders Have To Put it All On The Line

Bill Catlette

In the late 1980’s I left a very good job because I refused to follow a direct order that, though legal, was contrary to both policy and practice of the organization. Moreover, carrying it out would have materially harmed the livelihood and careers of some good people for no good reason. I certainly didn’t take the matter lightly, as my family, like most, likes to eat and pay its bills. Yet, I’ve seldom looked back... until recently, when Acting U.S. Attorney General, Sally Yates similarly disobeyed an order (albeit more publicly), and paid a similar price. She got to hear the two words made famous by Donald Trump in his last job, without having to join the Screen Actors Guild.

I totally get the fact that people who refuse lawful orders in the workplace get fired. They have to, because no organization can or should tolerate insubordination.

That said, I don’t know whether Sally Yates was given a lawful order pertaining to the Muslim / Travel / Refuge Ban or not. But what I do know is that there is evidence aplenty suggesting that she firmly believed that what she was expected to do was wrong, and thus formed the basis for her refusal to comply. But this post isn’t about Sally, or me.

Three Essential Steps to Improving Your Managerial Coaching Results

by Bill Catlette

Few would argue that coaching has become an important part of any leader’s repertoire for improving human and organizational performance. Yet, most have given little thought to when, where, and under what circumstances coaching is most effective, let alone trying to define or understand its key components. Let’s try to shed some light on the latter, with an eye for things that can immediately be put into practice and used to move the needle.

Workplace Productivity in the Post-Inauguration Period

By Richard Hadden

Psst! Psst! Yeah, you. Look around. Listen. What do you hear? Does your workplace look and sound like it usually does? I bet it doesn’t. Odds are that more people than usual are paying attention to news portals, be it television, radio, social media, or other digital news outlets. I’ll venture too that there is more politics and civics inspired banter between co-workers than one usually finds 11 weeks post-election. The bad news is that while this is going on, other things aren’t, like work. Your productivity is getting hammered, and it’s only a matter of time before customers and shareholders notice. Here’s a prediction - It’s not going to end anytime soon.

So, Mr. or Ms. Manager, your workplace productivity is getting dinged as your staff spends considerable time every day wondering aloud about their new government, and perhaps worrying privately about their healthcare, their job, and what it means to be an American these days. For that matter, this isn’t a we vs. them thing. You’re wondering and worrying the same things. So, what do you do?

Coaching Session Part 2, Debrief

by Bill Catlette

 NOTE: This post is a debrief of a mythical coaching session that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t already read that post, please do so before proceeding further.


The coach’s objectives in this case were to: 

  1. Begin to build trust thru truth
  2. Engage in a somewhat jarring, but narrowly focused session keyed to the individual’s self-interest
  3. Define and arrest, albeit momentarily, unhelpful behavior
  4. Create the first step and timely follow-up on a path to improvement and success

Coaching, particularly at senior levels, is an intensely personal, trust-dependent process. Each party must believe that the other is sincere, competent and is an interested partner. The player (President in this case) must believe that the coach has his best interest at heart.

Five things that I liked about this conversation:

A 5 Minute Coaching Session With the President

by Bill Catlette

Understandably, lots of managers at all levels struggle to have work-related coaching conversations. Typically, they are not something we've learned about in school, we lack a method, and in too many cases, find ourselves without a good example. So, using a contemporary, very public situation that has played out of late, here’s one example of what a good coach might say if they had five minutes alone with the new Commander in Chief, and a mandate to make it count. Tomorrow, we'll dissect it and try to give you some tips:

Coach:  Mr. President, I’ve been retained by the American people to provide you with some executive coaching, some fresh insight perhaps. My first question is to ask whether or not you are amenable to working with a coach, because it is truly your choice.

Prez: I’m not sure I feel the need, but for now, I’m willing to hear you out. You’ve got five minutes. Use them wisely.

Coach: I’m seeing some things that I believe are keeping you from being as successful as you can, and probably would like to be in your new job. Are you interested in discussing that?

by Bill Catlette

1/24/17 4:48P Memphis

Despite unprecedented increase in the amount of digital labor-saving technology applied to our commercial processes, the U.S. rate of productivity growth has effectively been sawed in half over the last decade. You heard that right, microchips and poor productivity in the same sentence. Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen has declared this trend “a key uncertainty for the U.S. economy.” That’s about a 6.3 on the Fed-speak Richter scale.

While many are in pursuit of the next gleaming digital means to cut humanoids further, or even entirely out of the process in the interest of raising productivity, we’ve been stumbling around looking for (and finding) what world class process observer and branding expert Martin Lindstrom might term small data solutions… scraps and insights that are lying right at our feet that can be picked up and applied right now, many of them for free.

Like what? How about better ways of leading people so that they actually want to part with some of their discretionary effort in the workspace and thus contribute at a higher level. No capital expenditure involved. Here’s one:

Less Selfies, More Ussies

Bill Catlette

As a leadership coach, I work with managers up and down the ladder, helping them refine and capitalize on their strengths, discover hidden (to them) weaknesses, and rehab or minimize the impact of the latter. In a world that seems bent on becoming more inwardly-focused, where everyone is running for their next gig, one thing that we seem to be spending more time and emphasis on is maintaining steadfast focus on three core aspects of this thing called leadership:

On Being the New Sheriff

By Richard Hadden

As of noon today, for those of us in the US, there will be, as we say, a new sheriff in town. Based on the popular vote, more than half (about 54%) of those who voted in November's presidential election were disappointed in its outcome. But the Electoral College vote is what counts, quirks and all, and so there we have it.

Because I've not been asked to proffer advice to the incoming president, I'll refrain from doing so. But the rest of us - those who don't have our names on skyscrapers - often find ourselves, willingly or otherwise, put in new positions of leadership, taking over from someone else. Here are some things that will help make that transition work better, when you become the new boss:

ALL Millennials are...Different

By Richard Hadden

Years ago, I participated in a diversity workshop that featured an exercise called "All Iowans are Naive", the object of which was to expose the fallacy of stereotypes. And fallacious they are. I have two close friends who hail from the state of Iowa, and both are exceptionally savvy. Other combos in the game were things like "All Scots are stingy", "All men are mechanically inclined" and "All women like to shop". Those who know my wife and me, know at least one exception to each of those broad generalizations.

I know that there are those who hold onto these (and other) tired old stereoptypes, without regard for their inaccuracy and uselessness. But most of us know better than to give voice to those views, at least in commercial company.

So, why then, is it seemingly OK to think (and say out loud) that all people born between 1977 and 1994 all think, act, buy, and work in the same way? They don't.

Leaders Are Optimists

by Bill Catlette

Owing to ever tighter budgets, higher expectations, and a skinny but distracted workforce, the practice of leadership in today’s workspace is difficult enough. We unnecessarily add to that burden and materially hamper our effectiveness when we fail to maintain a positive outlook. How so? Because negativity saps our own energy, and people won’t follow a pessimist very long or far, because it saps theirs, as well.

Think about it. Reliable engagement surveys tell us that our people are less connected than ever to the organization. Job quit rates are rising, causing a lot of our staff to wonder if this is the time they should make a move. If people are trudging into work only to deal with a leader who sees every glass as half empty, it makes for a long day. Conversely, as Mary Lou Retten put it, “Optimism is a magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you.”

Just happy talk? No. We’ve all been around long enough to realize that there are days when you eat the bear, and days when the bear takes a big bite out of you. That said, as leaders, at any rung of the ladder and in any organization, we must find a way, without sacrificing who we are, to be “a dealer in hope”, as Napoleon Bonaparte put it. Three suggestions in that regard:

  1. Practice good self care. Attend to your own health. It’s hard to be upbeat when you’re tired or ill. Take breaks during the day. Get up, go outside, take a walk (or run). Adopt a hobby that requires total concentration and still offers relaxation (e.g., fly-fishing or flying). Establish a buddy system with a friend where you will call one another out, and offer a friendly ear or shoulder when needed. If you need to talk with a professional, do it.
  2. Take steps to surround yourself with positive people. The whole atmosphere changes when negativity is reduced. Be careful how much mindspace you give up to negativity. As Robert Tew put it, “Don’t let negative and toxic people rent space in your head. Raise the rent. Kick them out.”
  3. Create a bucket list. It’s amazing the positive energy you can get from anticipating doing one of your bucket list items. I’ve got one that I actually put on my LinkedIn page just to force myself to do it, and it’s coming up in a couple weeks. Look out NOLA!

Great Cakes Start With Great Ingredients… Hiring Strategically Still Pays Off

by Bill Catlette

In what little 'me time' she has, my wife is an avid baker. As such, she has long maintained that "great cakes start with great ingredients." That axiom is every bit as true in the workspace as it is in the kitchen, most especially when it comes to management talent.

I was reminded of this in a conversation with Junior Lacayo, an Atlanta area Marriott hotel exec. In discussing the approach at his property to filling the management bench, he indicated that, because of a strong promote from within preference, candidates for every job at the hotel are viewed as (and screened for being) future leaders. To wit, no job is filled until the successful candidate has passed muster with the hiring manager and the entire management chain up to and including the property's GM.

In the same vein that a PowerPoint® deck is not a presentation, and a GPS is not a trip, recruiting is not an app or a job board. To be clear, we’re entirely onboard with using technological aids to enable recruiting processes, but if you desire a discerning process that consistently yields people with the requisite talent and organizational fit, when and where you need them, a lot of skillful human effort is still involved.

If your business is at all labor intensive, here are some tips to bear in mind when it comes to recruiting:

  1. Make sure recruiters are armed with job profiles that are completely up to date and based on performance characteristics that have proven instrumental to success – recently. These can be gleaned from a combination of analytics and the considered opinion of a wily veteran or two. Challenge education and experience requirements that are more than a couple years old particularly hard, as much has changed.
  2. Expand your sourcing channels. Just as farmers know that you can’t expect to farm the same ground for the same crops year after year, recruitment sources need to be cultivated and rotated. Moreover, as Ross Perot has suggested, “Eagles don’t flock – you find them one at a time.”
  3. In view of the fact that the decisions about who winds up on your payroll are perhaps the most important decisions any leader makes, make sure that your business leaders at every level are well-skilled in this area. I’ll wager that a lot of your managers have never learned how to do an effective employment interview (from the hiring side of the desk). Further, if such decisions are truly important to the organization, make sure that quality of hiring metrics show up on every manager’s performance rating criteria, and that there is significant money at stake.
  4. Lastly, stop disrespecting your recruiters and instead show them some love by making sure that they have adequate tools (and yes, technology) to work with, but even more importantly, that their efforts and contributions are appreciated. They have a tough job that is getting tougher by the day. If you really want them to be focused and fired up, make sure that they have some serious outcomes-driven cash at stake.

Good luck, and happy hunting.

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