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…
- Speak truth to power. Smart leaders know when, where, and how to do that.
- Realize that waiting until all the facts are known causes a lot of lost opportunities.
- 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.