Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leaders Look Bad

Real leaders are ethical. And they are human, which means they screw up often. By combining ethics and fallibility, leaders have the courage to look bad.

Often because of pride and ego, individuals in leadership positions would rather look good, so they hide financial losses, avoid acknowledging personal shortcomings, cover up major flaws in their business plan or tell everyone "everything is fine" when it isn't.

Being honest and straightforward even when doing so reveals your own inadequacy in managing is a hallmark of leadership. Nevertheless, we have a tendency to rationalize: "If I admit I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm supposed to be the leader here, I'll lose the confidence and respect of those I'm leading." Or perhaps the story we tell ourselves is: "I can work this through. No sense in getting everyone else worried about it. If I can find the solution, no one needs to know what's been going on."

Ironically, in both examples above, the opposite is true. In the first example, if you are willing to be vulnerable and admit you don't have all the answers, you gain others' confidence and respect. If you act as though you know what you're doing, but it becomes apparent you do not, that's when others doubt your leadership.

In the second example, you need help. Many of us are afraid to ask for help, particularly from subordinates, because we view it as a sign of weakness. Having the courage to ask for help in solving a major management crisis will actually engage others in the cause. Most people want to help and are honored that you would consider asking them for it.

I had a friend who spent time in jail because he was afraid to admit his business finances were spinning out of control. He would not inform his investors that his cash situation was a house of cards that could topple at any minute. He said he kept thinking, "I can figure a way out of this and they'll never have to know." He assured everyone "everything is fine." Well, the wind blew and the cards came down. He was convicted of fraud.

He explained that had he simply told the truth to the investors early on, admitting things were going badly, he might have been able to enlist their help -- and he certainly wouldn't have been convicted of fraud. He may or may not have avoided a lawsuit had he been honest, but having the courage to "look bad" would no doubt have kept him out of jail. The desire to look good cost him his reputation and his career.

Being vulnerable, laying ourselves open, and admitting we don't have all the answers takes more courage than trying to put on a confident, sunny facade. In the long run, the facade generally falls and we end up looking bad anyway. Only this time looking bad isn't a sign of leadership.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Change Management is Redundant

"Change Management" is a popular subject about which many books and articles are written. I find it odd. The phrase seems redundant to me.

Does any business run in "steady state?" Sometimes it seems like nothing is changing, but that is an illusion. People, priorities, the economy, markets and technology change every second of every day. What management is not change management?

Most of the change management programs, plans, software, etc. that I see for effectively implementing the change management process treat change as an event -- in particular a big event. Change management programs tend to focus on communication, overcoming resistance, employee involvement, training, etc. -- how to get people to accept a major change in the organization, such as a downsizing, merger, new focus, or a new company-wide technology upgrade.

But in my mind, these aren't best practices for big change. They are simply best practices. Strategic leadership is about thoughtful evolution. As an organization evolves -- which is constant --communication, training, working on overcoming resistance, employee involvement in the process, are all integral to moving forward effectively. Any time a staff member needs to learn a new skill or a department adopts a new process, be it major or minor, the change management skills listed above are required.

Nevertheless, I understand the need for structured change management programs in dealing with the major events. We need these programs because we forget, we get lazy perhaps. When the changes are minor, we tend to have a willingness to let people "fend for themselves." If managing evolution isn't a critical "life or death" issue for an organization the way addressing a big event is, we let our focus shift to other things.

I would suggest, though, that by not engaging in the best practices called "change management" all the time, we are setting the stage for potential fear and crisis when the next big event occurs.

On the other hand, if we establish an organizational culture where leadership helps coach, support, train, communicate and find out what barriers exist accepting changes, big or small, as they occur, then the need for a major shift of focus and approach is unnecessary when the occasional major, organization-wide change becomes necessary. In fact, if all are involved in and understand the evolution of the organization, then the next big event might not only not be resisted, but embraced.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everyone is a Volunteer Even if They Get Paid

As employers or organizational leaders, we sometimes view the contributions others make to the organization as "owed" to us. They get a paycheck, after all. Or, if they are volunteers, they "signed up for this" and owe us a commitment.

As leaders we need to recognize that everyone, even if they get a paycheck, is a volunteer.

Even though we as leaders may live under the delusion that others do our bidding because they are compelled to do so because of our position or title and their desire for self-preservation, the reality is they choose how they will do it, when they will do it, how well they will do it, and even if they will do it. If this weren't the case, then performance appraisal, discipline, etc., would be unnecessary.

Whether one uses the carrot or the stick, it is important to remember that we can only influence behavior, we cannot compel or control it. One need only consider the prisoner of war who, despite hellish torture and deprivation, is still able to choose not to be compelled -- even if doing so means annihilation. While all of us may have had "the job from hell" at some point in our careers, no one, I think, has faced the conditions of a prisoner of war in the corporate environment.

We might take the perspective, then, that those under our leadership provide their time and talent as a gift freely given. Whether we recognize it or not, people do have other options and could make different choices. If they do the job assigned, it is because they choose to provide service to us and our organization.

With this in mind, we can view leadership differently. What do we need to consider if everyone is a volunteer?

Personal Priorities: Our priorities are measured by where we put our time. If I say my family is my priority but spend all my time at work, I'm kidding myself. Clearly, whether I am willing to acknowledge it, work is my priority. Thus, an employee who truly values family more than work may choose not to do a task assigned because it interferes with family time. Being clear, then, on our volunteers' priorities can assist us in recognizing how to create an environment where the task can be done without having to compete with a higher priority. Attempting to change another person's inner priorities will only lead to frustration.

Desire to Make a Difference: One aspect of voluntarism is a desire to make a difference. Is my contribution meaningful? Does it have an impact? Sometimes, the tasks that must be performed seem meaningless and of little influence. The reality is, every action, no matter how small, is meaningful. Processes are interdependent. A simple invoice sent with the correct information, sent to the right address in a prompt manner can have enormous impact on a customer's perception of your business and their desire to continue working with you. While a salesperson may get the glory for bringing in the customer, the accounts receivable clerk may have just as much impact on your profitability. Thus, communicating the importance of even the small actions and appreciating the contribution made in the context of its impact on the success of the organization is very important.

Passion for the Cause: We willingly gift our time and talent with no expectation of return when we are passionate about a cause. What makes people passionate about a cause? It is the perceived positive impact being made in the world. Does your organization have a cause others can be passionate about? Does your product or service truly contribute to a better world? Or, maybe more indirectly, does your production of that product or service enable the organization to contribute to a better world? If so, then that should be communicated and reinforced by organizational leadership.

Other reasons people have for volunteering include:
  • Achievement: to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
  • Recognition and Feedback: to be held in high esteem by your fellows and get a "pat on the back."
  • Personal Growth: to stretch and learn.
  • Giving Something Back: to return the blessings you have received. In the job setting, this could be someone who has had an exquisite career but now wants to teach, mentor or counsel.
  • Friendship, Support and a Feeling of Belonging: how often have you stayed in a job longer than you might have simply because you loved the people you worked with? How often have you heard that "people don't leave jobs, they leave people?"

Employees seek and stay in jobs for many of the same reasons they volunteer. Finding out what stirs their passion to volunteer can also help you determine what stirs their passion for work in general.