Don’t Ease Up at the Finish Line

lady-at-finish-lineAt this point in the year, everyone is comfortable in their company.  They know how the company should finish the year, what kind of bonus to expect and whether their position is likely to move forward into the new year.  They know what is expected of them to perform their tasks and who to work with to accomplish that.

As a leader, you are also probably feeling good about your team.  You are looking forward to the natural ramp down due to the holidays and recharging your batteries to drive your team starting in the new year.  Budgets and goals have been approved and unless you work in a seasonal business, meeting frequency has dropped.

But a true leader knows that now is not the time to rest on your laurels.  You need to keep your forward momentum going.  There is no on/off switch on your team’s performance.  Allowing the bad habits of being content creep into your culture will take months to remove.  Everyone deserves a little coasting time, but not at the expense of team performance.

Now is a good time to:

1.       Review holiday vacation schedules.  Coverage is key.  Clients (both internal and external) will still need your team to perform at peak efficiency.  Having your entire team out at the same time will surely hurt your company’s performance.

2.       Do a “final review” of this year’s goals.  Before bonuses and performance evaluations start, take the time to go through each member’s goals and challenges to see where they will end up.  If they need to schedule a continuing education class, now is the time to do it.

3.       Have a preliminary 2017 team meeting.  Let your team know what may be expected of them in the coming months so they can mentally prepare for it.  Go over challenges, rewards, and plans.

4.       Review your goals with your management.  Without their buy in, getting anything done will be next to impossible.  Ask them specifically for ways for you to improve personal and team performance and efficiency.

Use this slow period to position your team and yourself to have the best year as possible.  Waiting until January to do that is not smart and will only cause your team to not live up to their potential.

Being a Leader Means Dealing with Negative People

control-tense-situation-150x150There have been a ton of posts, articles and segments recently about removing the negative influences in your life.  The general theme is that you will have a simpler, more productive life if you can eliminate the negativity and increase the positive energy in your life.  While I agree that “mean people suck”, it is impossible for a leader to remove all dealings with people who are not 100% positive.

A leader must choose what is best for their team as whole and as individuals.  These decisions will not be universally liked and people will complain.   And people on your team may be great performers but not have sunny dispositions.  The key for a leader is to handle the negativity when it falls into a few different buckets:

1.       It affects your team’s morale or performance.  When the negativity affects how the team performs, the issue needs to be addressed directly and without emotion or bias.  Speak to the individuals who are causing the issue first then the rest of the team.

2.       It comes from inside of your company but outside of your team.  If a co-manager or a boss are increasingly negative towards your team, it needs to be handled right away.  Otherwise, it will spread across teams and become companywide.  This happens a lot during management changes and acquisitions.

3.       It comes from your clients or vendors.  When your key stakeholders- either the revenue generators of your company or the material suppliers- are negative towards your team, you need to get to the root of the issues immediately.  Any interruption in supply or demand will adversely affect the performance of your team and company.

These issues are company killers once the negative energy starts to build.  As a true leader, you need to become the chief problem solver for your team and make the relationships harmonious again.  But as you well know, the issues are endless.

Once these issues are handled and you still have chronic naysayers, you may need to replace them regardless of performance.  After all, you can only have so much negativity in your life!

Leaders- Don’t Underestimate

balanced-livingYou are sitting in yet another meeting.  The same old gang is bringing up the same old ideas.  Then something happens, someone comes up with a brilliant solution to your problem.  Everyone takes a clue from the spark and suddenly your meeting is exciting and worthwhile.  The results will be so strong; they will erect a statue in the lobby of you being hoisted by your team.

Yeah, that usually doesn’t happen.  However, one of the truest measures of being a leader is not underestimating the ability of your team.  This can be either in performance, potential, or awareness.  Any of these three areas can damage your ability to lead.

1.       Performance-  this is the obvious one.  Underestimating how your team can perform will undo your leadership.  You need to give your team realistic and challenging goals.  Goals that half of the group may not achieve.  Bonuses are not extra salary.  Giving everyone easy targets will yield them to be lazy and not put forth the effort to excel.

2.       Potential- your goal as a leader is to maximize everyone’s potential; whether that is someone who will end up as the CEO or as a key contributor in a key position for years.  By underestimating what everyone can individually achieve, you are doing their careers a disservice.  And guess what?  Leaders who do not get their teams promoted don’t get promoted either.  Understand where each person wants to go and help them achieve it.

3.       Awareness- despite working for you, your team is not stupid.  People are keenly aware of your perception of them, what is going on in the company, and how other teams are treated.  You are sadly mistaken if you think that people will follow you just because you are their boss.  They may listen to you and do the job asked, but you are not inspiring them and building your village.

You need to take the time to analyze how you treat your team, how you perceive your team, and how your team performs relative to the rest of the company or industry.  By being truthful with them, you will be truthful with yourself- which is the real key to becoming a leader.

Lead by Listening

old-man-business-suitNext to “Waiting Your Turn”, listening is the hardest thing to do.  In our Type A, fast paced work environment, the popular feeling is that you only get ahead by telling people your ideas, telling them how to do their jobs, and telling the customer what they want.

But that is exactly how a leader should not act.  To become a leader in your industry, company, or team, you need to listen and hear what your key stakeholders have to say.  A leader needs to listen, hear, comprehend and process what is being told to them.  They need to understand not only what the person is saying but what they actually mean.

As you develop your skills as a leader, remember that conversations are two way communications.  You need to listen at least 50% of the conversation otherwise it is a lecture.  I have developed some techniques that work well for me.

1.       Take Notes.  By writing down what the person says, you are able to remember and reference their points during the conversation.

2.       Maintain Good Eye Contact.  By actually looking at the person talking, it makes you feel what they are saying.  This will help you look between the lines.

3.       Let Them Finish.  Too often you interrupt the person because you want to make a point or interject a rebuttal.  Wait until their point is made.  It gives you extra time to process their point of view.

4.       Say Nothing.  This works really well when someone is worked up.  Nod so they know you are listening, but let them get it off their chest. 

5.       Paraphrase Their Point.  By repeating the issue or idea back to them, you build consensus in what the topic is.  Reiterating the point also shows you listen and understand them, even if you do not agree.

6.       Ask More Questions.  When someone is really intense about a subject and you are having an issue understanding, ask more questions until you can guide them into what they are actually talking about.

These issues are even more important when you are reading emails or other correspondence.  It is immensely frustrating when someone requests a meeting to discuss something and you answer with a sales pitch.  Listen to what they are asking for- even if ultimately you are trying to sell them something.

Politicians = Corporate Leaders?

politicianElection season is upon us.  We are being bombarded with ads about how Candidate A is going to let you down, is corrupted by special interests and has a horrible record in their previous position.  Day after day and night after night, we are being told why Candidate A is bad.  What we are rarely told is why Candidate B is good and right for the position.  They ignore the “tell me what you are going to do then do it” axiom of old.

It has gotten me thinking about leadership and whether any of these candidates could survive in the corporate world.  Most of the candidates are very likable on the surface and probably interview well.  They can speak succinctly and eloquently about themselves, why they are qualified for the position and why you should hire them.  They are polished, well spoken, and look the part.  Which we know in the corporate world is half the battle.

Once they are hired, they probably are people who are great at handling the office culture.  They can recognize who the key decision makers are, how to become one of their trusted advisors and work the rest of the room to get their colleagues to understand why their ideas are rights.  They typically get fast tracked, have great short term results and are universally loved by their teams.

Then with a combination of power and wealth, their real personality comes out.  They begin to fight for their territory, they forget their team and company goals and only focus on what’s in it for them.  Grandstanding, back biting, and noise in the system become the norm.  Keeping your power is more important than moving issues forward.

When they cannot have their ego soothed or they lose the power struggle, they move companies and try to exert an even greater influence on their new company.  And because the wealth and power continue to accumulate, it is never enough.  They move from company to company leaving a wake of destruction in their path.

How many of these people have you encountered over your career?  Probably more than you’d like to count.  Great people who have been blinded by their “own” success.  They are not inherently bad people, just people who have lost touch with what’s right.

Maybe the problem with our politicians is that we didn’t catch them in the right arc of their career.  Maybe if we had people who didn’t need to be in the system to succeed, we may have leaders leading instead of trying to not lose.  Maybe if companies spent more time developing talent and keeping pay fair rather than so top heavy, top performers would stay and not job hop.

Unfortunately, when you are only judged by numbers, neither scenario seems likely.

Close 2016 with a Bang

2017_new_year_template_design_with_runway_6824428Now that Labor Day is behind us, it is time to enter the final push to make 2016 successful.  There are roughly 80 days until Thanksgiving, which basically ends the work year.  That is less than 60 work days to make an impact on your year.  Instead of freaking out, figure out what you need to do to make the year a success for your company, team and yourself.

I would focus on the following areas.

1.       Your Professional Development.  It is time to stop procrastinating and get your continuing education credits (and other training) done.  It is important that you invest in yourself but also that you are current.  One of the easiest ways to get overlooked for a promotion is because you let your credentials lapse.

2.       Your “Stated” Goals. It is a great time to check where your progress on your performance goals.  Are you going to make bonus?  Where are you missing budget?  Do you have the tools to fix it?  This should be a quarterly exercise any way, but for the fourth quarter, now is the time to review.  Waiting until October is too late.

3.       Your Short Term Projects.  Stay motivated and get all of those annoying quick projects off your desk.  Need to analyze some boring reports or reorganize an office area?  Take care of it now. You get to cross them off your To Do list and add them to your accomplishments for the year.

4.       Your Long Term Projects.  Guess what?  The end of the year is upon us.  All of those reengineering programs that you were going to do, need to be sped up and finished.  Was reinventing the sales cycle or the AP process all year a project?  The time to get it done is now.  What is great about this type of pressure is that it unclouds you and enables you to work through the project with renewed interest.

5.       Your Personal Development.  Look at the relationships you developed over the year and see how they impacted your ability to perform your job better.  If you did not invest in building deeper relations with your co-workers, customers, or colleagues, then you need to do it now.  Focus on growing your sphere of influence.  The more people who like you, the easier it is to get your tasks completed.

End the year on a high, work hard to improve your performance and you will reap rewards.  Who knows, you may figure out how to coast all year and surge your way to greatness.

What Happens When Your Leader Leaves?

control-tense-situation-150x150This is a question that gets asked a lot in terms of team sports.  Just this week, the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers had to ask that question before and after their trade of two clubhouse leaders.  NFL teams ask themselves that every time they cut a trusted veteran and decide to keep a younger player.  Their businesses are built on cohesion and chemistry.  Tinkering with that mix may yield a disastrous season.

In the business world, these changes happen all of the time.  CEOs and other senior leaders change companies constantly, taking their “team” with them from job to job.  The leadership void that is left behind can potentially cripple a team or company until the next regime comes in and starts implementing their plan.

Regardless of your spot in a company, when your leader leaves, you have a chance to improve your company standing.  Being ready for that opportunity is a key to your upward mobility.  You should focus on the following:

1.       Interpersonal relationships within the current organization.  If you are a good teammate and have made positive relationships in the key departments that affect your team, you are already on the radar for moving up.  Continue investing in these relationships when there is a leadership void.  Your presence will help you become a go to person.

2.       Global perspective.  Looking at your corporate landscape and understanding where the company needs you will help you gain the access needed to become a more valued leader.  If your former boss used to present quarterly numbers to the Board and you were the person running them, volunteer to fill that void.

3.       Being the calming influence.  People hate change and tend to overact to it.  Be the person who people can vent to and be reassured that the situation will improve.  Our positive outlook will help the team stay together and people will look to you for more important issues.

One of the biggest things you don’t want to do is self-appoint yourself as the heir apparent.  No one wants you to be a “grave robber”- waiting for your opportunity to advance during a time of mourning.  You need to state your desire to be the next leader, but not in a sneaky or grandiose way.

Being a leader is earned, take the time to invest in yourself and your team and people will see you as the next leader whenever the old one is traded, released or goes somewhere else.

Want to be a Better Leader? Volunteer!

thank-you-volunteersVolunteerism around America is declining in droves.  People are too busy to “give back” to their community.  Nonprofit organizations are struggling to fill their Boards.  Local sports leagues cannot find coaches, umpires or administrators. 

And guess what?  Our businesses are going to feel the effects of this decline.  One of the best ways to learn to lead is to do so through volunteering.  You are one of a team of people who have a similar interest in a topic, let’s say children’s athletics.  Your goal is simple- improve the experience of every player in the organization.  But how you get there is unique to each team member.  In order for this team to function, someone needs to take the lead.

There is one big difference between leading at work versus volunteering- most people in volunteering are agreeable to being led, especially if the person is likeable, well-spoken and almost smart.  They want to achieve a common goal and are giving up their free time to get there.  Politics, back stabbing, fear of job loss, etc. are not in the equation.  Volunteers are willing to work with a leader and accept mistakes more readily because “it is not their real job”. 

The skills that you learn from leading during your “volunteer” time is invaluable.  Skills like managing people who do not work for you, making change with minimal resources, time management, consensus building, customer service, and conflict management are must haves for the strong volunteer.  Funny because they are also some of the key skills that leaders need to be developed.

Why do companies look for team captains and student government for employment after college?  Easy, they are leaders in the making.  They were seen by their peers to be worthy of following.  So why do companies want you to volunteer?  For the same reason, they want to see who their leaders are.  They want to see how you work in a group of strangers and whether you lead, follow or drop.

So, make the last third of 2016 productive, find an organization, and volunteer.  Your career will thank you as will the people whose lives you impact. 

How Do You Measure Up to Olympic Athletes?

Rio LogoLike everyone else, I have been enthralled with the Olympics. I love the stories that are told about athletes and their struggles to become Olympians. Overcoming obstacles is one of the greatest keys in life. Anyone can succeed when there are no pitfalls, it takes a special person to find hope in setbacks.

The other thing I like about the Olympics is the different ways the athletes handle success or failure. It shows a lot about their character, leadership and personality. There were three instances last night alone that pointed to these traits.

The first one was the 400M Women’s Hurdles qualifying races. A young woman from NJ had just run in her estimation a horrible race. She was obviously devastated and took her 15 second interview time to make four separate excuses on why she did not perform well. As luck would turn out, her time was good enough to advance. Are the type of person who dwells on the negative or do you look for the silver lining? To be a great leader, you need to take the time to see the wide view, even in a moment of perceived darkness.

The second one was after the Women’s 400M race where the winner literally dove across the finish line- denying a two time defending champion a chance to win a third time. The silver medalist was obviously disappointed with her result and let the world know it. The racer did not lose because of the dive, she lost because she was not fast enough that day. Every person in that race except for one would trade places with her in a heartbeat, but her first reaction was to blame the winner for doing everything it takes to win. Are you that way? Do you want to be the best, but make excuses when you aren’t? If you want to be the best in business, you need to prove it every day.

The last one was in the Women’s Balance Beam event. The prohibitive favorite came in third. She had been crushing the competition all week. And in one of her best events, she made a major mistake. Again, she was obviously devastated, but unlike the other two athletes, she said and did the right things. She congratulated both other winners, was exited to received her medal and gave a very gracious interview. Could you act that way? If you are a true leader, you absolutely must. Leadership is about actions, words, and attitude. Any negative vibe in any of these three areas, make you vulnerable.

There are countless other examples of these types of behavior. These just happened to take place while I was watching last night. Take time to watch through those eyes this week and see how you would react in disappointment. You might surprise yourself.

Solving a Misunderstanding

meetingIf you have ever dealt with another person in your life, you have had a misunderstanding.  Things like cream in your coffee instead of black or who forgot to set the alarm when you leave your house are issues that can be very easily handled and, after a quick remedy, are put behind you.

When a misunderstanding happens at work, however, they tend to blow up bigger than they really are.  Things like forgetting to send a package or returning a call can become huge issues.  Tempers escalate even further when a shipment to a customer is messed up and no one is notified or a report is run with outdated data and huge projects are based on that report.

As a leader, you need to know how to diffuse both types of issues because they affect your team’s performance and their trust in each other.   In order to lead through the fall-out from misunderstandings, you need to:

  1. Create a culture of accountability.  Many times mistakes and misunderstandings occur when there is a lack of control over a project or task.  People need to know what they are expected to do every day and that they will be held responsible if their tasks are not done properly.   A leader has to own your (or your team’s) mistakes.  The buck has to stop with you and you need to recognize when mistakes are made by your team or you and accept the consequences.  You cannot blame others for your team’s issues.
  2. Communicate with your team and key contributors.  Misunderstandings and hurt feelings usually occur because of poor communication.  Keep your team and the other people that you need to be successful informed on changes, decisions, and other issues that may cause problems.
  3. Empower your team to solve their issues professionally without you getting involved.  Having mom or dad solve the issue usually causes more hurt feelings.  This is especially true when a leader has to mediate between team members.  The one that “won” is smug and the one that “lost” is demotivated.  Let them try to solve their own issues before getting involved.
  4. Keep HR in the loop.  Human Resources is a leader’s best friend during misunderstandings.  They know whether the issue is a job related mistake versus harassment.  HR also can help sensitize your team to avoid issues altogether.  Telling someone you like their sweater may be a nice compliment but it also can be construed as an advance.  Make sure your team knows how your company wants employees to interact with each other.

As with most of my articles, these are pretty simple on the surface policies to enact.  However, it takes a dedicated and determined leader to stick to these principles- especially when someone books you to go to St. Louis, MI instead of St. Louis Park, MN.