Leaders... Dancing in the Dark?

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Leaders... Dancing in the Dark?

by Bill Catlette

memphis • 7/26/20

In his 1984 Grammy Award winning song, Dancing in the Dark, a slightly randy Bruce Springsteen bemoans a grinding, dreary daily existence without much well, uh, action.  A glance at the lyrics comes uncomfortably close to what a lot of leaders are feeling of late. But let’s start with the hopeful part.

The Action

In recent coaching calls with three senior leaders, each in their own way voiced an observation that, with a large portion of their staff in WFH mode, their teams are complaining less and getting noticeably more work done. More, not less; as in more productive. Broader data suggests that this is not an aberration. It wouldn’t be in our interests to squander the advantage.

The Grind

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, given that this COVID  thing doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, we’re running a very real risk of burning some people out because they/we don’t pay so much attention to quitting time any more, and, for that matter, what’s a weekend, when every day is groundhog day?

Second, this observation suggests that there might be something to Peter Drucker’s axiom that, “Ninety percent of what we call ‘management‘ consists of making it difficult for people to get things done.” Now that all these folks are free from the gaze of nearly constant “management attention”, the diminished BS factor has freed them to get more real work accomplished. If so, what does that say about the way we run our businesses in normal times, and the focus of all that management? Hmm.

Check Your Look In The Mirror

In that vein, here are three suggestions:

  1. In response to not just the extra work, but the strain of all things COVID, schedule a short 1 on1 call with every one of your teammates in the next two weeks, both those in your direct line, and others who are matrixed to your projects or unit. The purpose of the call is not about work, but about them… to inquire as to how they (and their family) are doing, if there is anything that you can do to be of help to them, and to let them know they are cared about. Rinse and repeat, at least every sixty days. That’s it. Just do it. If you are in a senior role, include some “skip level” calls to folks two or more rungs down the ladder from you, and (yes) a couple of your peers as well. Just be prepared for their heads to explode on the first call.
  2. Figure out how you’re going to take this WFH thing to the next level, because the toothpaste is not all going back in the tube. Whereas the virus that spurred it on will eventually be brought under control, I don’t see a day when everyone comes back to a common workplace and spends eight hours with their feet screwed to the floor in one spot. So, how do we provide better leadership, give people more of what they need in order to enjoyably do their very best work, and avoid doing the stupid stuff that slows them down and makes them crazy? Hint: For many, the focus of our leadership and some of our methods simply must change. By way of example, we should forget we ever heard the word, “supervisor.”
  3. Keep you own head in the game, and your act squared away. The fact that we’re not illuminated full time by the usual spotlight doesn’t meant that all norms and bets are off. In a recent call, a client volunteered that he was noticing that some were taking WFH informality to excess, doing Zoom calls in scruffy t-shirts more appropriate to a beach volleyball game, and letting way more profanity than seems appropriate creep into the workday lexicon, including sessions with customers. Yikes! I might suggest that we re-arrange our guardrails before someone else does it for us. In my own case, I’ve done two things in an effort to police my own behavior: First, when WFH, I’ve resumed wearing dress shirts on days when I have scheduled client meetings (virtual or otherwise). You’ll never see the jeans and bare feet below the desk:-) If nothing else, it’s a reminder for me that this call is about business. Second, I’ve borrowed a lesson from the hotel industry, with whom we do business both ways. Every well run hotel has a full length mirror just inside the doors leading from the “back of the house” to guest areas as a reminder for staff to check their look before encountering guests. I now have a small mirror on my desk for the same reason when working by phone, if only to check for a smile. 

At the end of the day, there is admittedly a lot happening right now that we cannot control, and it does neither us nor those around us any good to whine or despair over it. But we can remember what we’re about, and do our best to monitor our attitude, our look, our behavior, because at the end of the day, people follow people.

Stay positive, stay relevant, wear your mask.

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