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Daily Dairy from Contented Cows

Having seen example after example of the “power of the carrot” I have long maintained that organizations large and small should be careful, very careful what they incentivize people to do, because it will absolutely, positively drive behavior… in every one of us. We’ve seen it on a super-sized scale in the healthcare fee-for-service model, where providers ring the register thru unnecessary and duplicative procedures, and now in banking (again!) even after the near meltdown of the global financial system in 2007-8.

In a story reported by CNN, Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that Wells Fargo Bank employees had “secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses."  According to the CNN piece, this was no minor caper, with over 1 million bogus bank and credit card accounts opened, and about 5300 Wells Fargo employees terminated for their role. 5300 people!

So, what if anything can the rest of us do to prevent or at least minimize such behavior in our own businesses? Several things come to mind, but the first is, don’t over-react and become averse to incentives in general, but do be very thoughtful about how you structure and implement them. A few thoughts:

Spurred by incessant jousting over whether one of the U.S. presidential candidates might be “hardening or softening” their position on immigration policy, I thought recently about an altogether different arena, the workspace, and the evolution of management style that many of us find ourselves in the midst of, as we journey between a top-down command and control style (hard), and a more collegial and inclusive (softer) style. Regardless of where one is on that transition curve, and your direction of travel, there are still some universal precepts, ‘iron laws’ if you will, that bear adherence. Based on some of the conversations that have cropped up of late in my coaching practice, here are three that bear mentioning:

Good leaders say “no”… a lot

Two of the biggest things I see leaders at all levels struggling with are, 1) dealing with the enormous daily pile of incoming, be it text, voice, or anxious faces standing in the doorway, and 2) the urge to be “in” on every meeting, relationship, and decision.

Who among us would keep seeing a dentist who was lousy at administering anesthesia? Or would knowingly board an airplane piloted by someone who'd never really learned to fly? I think I know the answer.

So why, then, do so many of us tolerate people in management positions who have demonstrated a remarkable ineptitude for leading people?

A strange and curious pattern has developed in many organizations, and it looks like this:

1. Promote someone who is good at what they do to a position of leadership, without regard to their ability to perform in a leadership capacity.
2. Evaluate them primarily on their ability to episodically bring in short-term results, and only secondarily, if at all, on their ability to lead people.
3. If it becomes apparent that they have failed in their leadership role, continue to tolerate them (and in many cases, promote them) in spite of their demonstrated incompetence in a core function of the role.

And we wonder why one of the chief complaints in Employee Engagement surveys is expressed as "Lack of management credibility."

Earlier this week, I spent about a half an hour trapped, by myself, in an elevator that I've traveled 27 floors up, and down, an average of twice a week every week for the past 25 years. That I so regularly frequent this conveyance at all is slightly amazing, given that I'm a moderately afflicted claustrophobe.

OK, I'll admit it. I panicked. A little. But not a lot. After calling for help, at long last the elevator came to a gentle rest on the ground floor, and the doors opened onto a lobby that had never looked so appealing to me as it did in that moment.

What a great experience! Although my autonomic nervous system would have argued at the time, and for a day or two afterward.

Focusing on the "great" part, here's what I learned:

By Richard Hadden, with Eric Yarham

Let's start with this: I am not, like some members of my generation, a Pokémon Go hater.

In fact, I've played it. And I think it's kinda cool. There are many things worse than moving off the couch, breathing some fresh air, and discovering places in your community you didn't know existed. A library in my area has seen an uptick in visits from teens since the game's launch. I think that's cool, too.

But while playing, I couldn't escape the comparisons between Pokémon hunting and the search for talent at work, both when it's done well, and when it's bungled...

For nearly three years, CEO’s (and other C-suite occupants) have been voicing mounting concern about the length and strength (or lack thereof) of their leadership bench. Following are a few thoughts about the underlying causes of those concerns, and what can be done about them.


1. Lack of developmental opportunity / assistance - They are on the bench (for now), but not in the game. You’ve invested neither time nor interest in them. There have been few, if any serious progress and career-pathing discussions, let alone follow-on action, leading to the conclusion that you don’t care, or that they don’t matter.
2. A fish out of water - They don’t fit the organization culturally. In many cases, they’ve been aware of it for some time, perhaps since their first week, and are only now working thru the denial, and/or the need to have a respectably long stay on their resume.

In a recent speech for about sixty undergrad management students, I posed the question: “How many of you either already occupy, or aspire to a professional role as a leader?” Everyone in the room raised a hand. After acknowledging delight in seeing so much interest, I then remarked soberly, “some of you probably need to put your hands back down”, drawing scornful glances from two professors seated in the back row.

I didn’t say it to be mean or dispiriting, but realistic. Being a leader can be a joy, but it isn’t easy. On lots of days, it’s no bargain, and let’s just get this out of the way... As with any other occupation or profession, not everyone is cut out to do it. In fact, when you get right down to it, very few are - not because it requires an abundance of smarts or skill, but because it’s hard, especially on the first few rungs of the ladder, where you have pressure from above and below, the incoming never stops, and you don’t get to call a time-out. It’s a bit like fast-roping your way into an armed conflict without the benefit of training or ammunition.

The long life of an old family friend came to an end last week. More than a generation ago, this fellow was a high-profile public official in my hometown (appointed, not elected). And something of a controversial figure. I was a kid at the height of his notoriety, and I was always struck by the disconnect between the guy I knew (to me, he was just my friends' dad), and the public persona I saw and read about in the news. He seemed like a nice, if somewhat formal guy in a personal context, but he was often vilified in the media as a hard-nosed, dogmatic tyrant. Now, if you've been a regular reader of this blog, our books, or our Fresh Milk newsletter, you'll know that tyranny isn't generally a leadership style we advocate. I never worked for the guy, so I don't know if the word tyrant was an accurate descriptor or not. But I could easily believe he was hard-nosed. And it's well documented that he had high standards.

Since the June 23 referendum in which voters in the United Kingdom opted out of the European Union, there has been no small volume of ink and electrons applied to discussing the ramifications, good and bad (mostly bad) of what many describe as a surprising outcome.

So rather than heap more words on that argument, I’m going to look at it from the other side of the road: when people, in any context, become dissatisfied, disillusioned, and feel abused and/or taken for granted, they’ll start looking for the exit, or in this case, the Brexit.

It happens in marriages and other relationships. It happens with consumers and their once-favored brands.

And it happens in the workplace. Always has, always will.

The parallels between Brexit and “Wexit” (Worker Exit, of course), are almost as numerous as the EU officials who never thought the Brits would leave. I’ll highlight but a few that jump readily to mind.

As a sports-minded teen growing up in West Virginia in the mid 60’s, I was an impressionable witness to the metamorphosis of a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay into the more fully formed adult who became known as Muhammad Ali.

Our town wasn’t exactly a bastion of racial or social tolerance, so there wasn’t much local sympathy when Ali was stripped of his title and livelihood, fined, and sentenced to prison for refusing to be drafted into the military. Though his conviction was eventually overturned by an 8-0 Supreme Court decision, he still paid a heavy price.

It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that, whereas Ali was as good a promoter as he was a fighter, his decision to reject the draft notice was based far more on conviction than self-promotion. And in that respect, his actions proved more respectable than those of some of my classmates who found more surreptitious ways to avoid military service in the same increasingly unpopular war. He at least stood up and said, “No” in an unwavering voice.

Whether as parents, business or civic leaders, this presents an enduring lesson for those of us who have accepted the mantle of leadership – notably that we, too must stand for something(s), and stand means stand. It’s not always going to be appreciated at the time, and there is often a personal price to be paid. Yet, people who look to us for leadership have a right to expect that we will find our voices when circumstances call for it, and that those voices will be equally clear and resolute when we say, “No, we’re not going there”, “We can do better”, or to unambiguously call someone out who is behaving badly.

The song, “If I Could Turn Back Time” written by Diane Warren and performed by recording artist, Cher, laments our inability to completely erase and undo harm caused to another:

“If I could turn back time
If I could find a way I'd take back those words that hurt you and you'd stay.

I don't know why I did the things I did. I don't know why I said the things I said.
Pride's like a knife it can cut deep inside.
Words are like weapons they wound sometimes.

I didn't really mean to hurt you, I didn't wanna see you go…”

Leaders, like every other human, occasionally cause harm to others, be it via a mean or inconsiderate comment, personal betrayal, inappropriate use of position power, forgetfulness, selfish behavior, or some other action. More often than not, when it happens, we are aware of it, but choose to minimize or not to clean up the mess we just made, perhaps out of arrogance, pride, or ignorance (as in not knowing how best to remedy it).

One such episode permanently seared in my own memory involves a senior exec who chose to chew me out via speakerphone while two peers, one of my direct reports, and a contractor sat in his office listening to the ‘conversation’. The ONLY reason for doing that with an audience, let alone that particular audience, was to embarrass and humiliate. He got that, and more. Like the injured friend or lover in Cher’s song, I quit him immediately, and then left the job on my terms and timetable. And we wonder where disengagement comes from?

Simply put, once spoken, words can’t be put back in the mouth. Many deeds cannot be undone. But what we can, and must do is take responsibility for our messes and clean them up. Some of us seem content to roll thru life without regard for the damage caused by our wake. That damage accrues to our reputation which, at the end of the day, is all any of us has.

Following is some of the best advice I’ve gotten on this topic, most of it from the good example of others (thanks, Mom):

When you make a mess…

  1. Own it – sooner, not later. Don’t wait to be force-fed the facts or blame.
  2. Offer a real apology, not one of those wimpy, qualified (“I’m sorry if anyone was offended”) versions. Do it in person. Do it once, and mean it.
  3. To the best of your ability, make it right - make the person whole.
  4. As long as you’re paying the price for your mistake, learn from it and move on, a better person.

Economists have struggled over the last decade to attribute and explain the dramatic slowing of U.S. productivity growth. Since 2005, U.S. labor productivity growth (growth of measured output minus the growth of labor input) has been effectively sawed in half. As one of the few real indicators of economic vitality, understanding this phenomena is anything but an academic exercise.

For better than two decades, late night talk show host, David Letterman ran hilarious periodic segments, Stupid Pet Tricks, highlighting silly tricks that people had taught their pets to perform. In a somewhat similar fashion, most of us manager-types have, over the years and the course of our careers adopted or fallen into habits and thought processes that, when subjected to the harsh light of day, are equally silly, but with more serious consequence. An example…

Guest post by Jonathan Cardwell

Mick Fanning has been.  Last month while surfing a competition off the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Mick was attacked by a shark.  He bravely fought off the shark and escaped without any physical injuries.

By Bill Catlette

Recently, I came uncomfortably close to dying in a well-equipped, modern, metropolitan hospital emergency room, a building that I had walked into under my own power. The cause of the near death experience was preventable. It had nothing to do with staffing shortages, Obamacare, or a packed emergency department. Rather, it had a lot to do with listening, specifically the lack thereof. Listening, really listening.

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