Leaders Fuel the Organization’s Fire

The flame of a candle will go out in the wind, but the wind will feed the flame of fire.  Leaders of organizations need to understand the balance of the people.  We must do our best to build organizations that are full of people that can not only withstand the wind, but that thrive on it.

So, what is the wind in this metaphor? It is different for everyone, but for most people, it is probably constructive criticism.  The key word in that phrase is “constructive,” which means, “helping to improve; promoting further development or advancement.”  If you are scolding or just unloading your frustrations on your people, this is not constructive criticism.  Be specific about what is not meeting the mark and help them understand how to move forward.  If they are emotional, get through the initial emotional meeting and follow up later for a more level-headed conversation.  Time usually brings perspective, and even if you didn’t see eye-to-eye at the time, it would likely be a more relaxed conversation the second time around.  At the very least, you will have had time to think through the previous discussion, and you will know each other’s opinions ahead of time.

Oxygen is in the leader’s gas can.  A leader uses oxygen to fuel their people’s flames, and it is positive reinforcement.  Much research has been done to show that people respond to this type of conditioning.  Simply by adding words of encouragement anytime, someone does good work, meets deadlines, and meets expectations is reason enough to let them know.  I am not saying to go overboard here.  Your response should be on par with the level of work they did.  If they met the deadline, then say thank you for meeting the deadline.  If they completed their work early and the work was far beyond your expectations, then perhaps some bonus time off is in order or recognition at the next staff meeting will do the trick.  The key is to encourage your people to continue to do great things.  Also, you should be working to make this a habit, not all of us are good at it, and I’m still working on it!

Any positive reinforcement when not warranted is poison.  This creates confusion and sends the worst message.  It tells your people several things that are terrible about your leadership skills.  It says, you don’t know the difference between good or bad behavior, you are afraid to be honest, you don’t know how to deal with negative behavior or negative feelings, or you are short-sighted because you would rather lie to them for ‘good feelings’ now than to have a difficult conversation at the moment and the potential for a better future.

All of this will help create people that can handle the challenges of life.  Life is hard; work is hard; getting promoted is hard; finding a new career is hard.  If leaders don’t take the time to help create “fires” instead of guarding our actions and language to the point that all we have are “candles” we will continue to face weak organizations that are unable to change and shift with the demands of the industry.

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If Everything is Important Nothing is Important

Leaders of every organization must have deliberate priorities.  Whether it is in the form of a strategic plan or extrapolated through observation of recent actions; there must be priorities.  This is basic management, or what you would learn in an entry-level management course in college, but so many leaders are still not making decisions on what the organization should focus. Calling prioritizing your actions a basic management skill is deceptive.  Although it is learned early in most management programs, it is far from basic.  Everything can seem important at the moment and as a leader, if you don’t give everyone the impression that you care about the things that they care about or are worried about, won’t they lose faith in your leadership?

The result of a leader that tells their people that they have other things to work on is not about telling them they are unimportant. It is about telling them they are capable of handling it on their own.  It is about autonomy, delegation, and trust.  A leader should be concerned with the problem but should also know that solving all their people’s problems will only teach them to keep bringing them their problems.  This is all about how the leader handles the situation from an interpersonal relationship perspective.  Listen to what they have to say; let them know you have faith in their capabilities and trust their judgment to make the call.  If they really can’t make the decision, give them the options to come back to you, but let them know you do not expect that they will need to. This will put some pressure on them to decide on a course of action. 

The follow up will speak volumes!  Always check back in on them and ask how it turned out.  If they made a mistake, be very careful not to hammer them, this will guarantee they never make a decision again.  Use this as a teaching moment and move on.  The trust gained from this kind of interaction will pay dividends for a very long time.

Taking this kind of action will free you up to make three or four areas of the organization your priority.  Then you can focus your attention there.  If you establish a priority of growth, but there are no efforts from the organization to grow, then you have not made your priorities important to your people.  Establish your priorities first, then use them during evaluations and awards periods to determine if people are internalizing them.  If you have established priorities and communicated them, but nobody is paying attention to them, you are not leading, and your people are following someone else.

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People Will Hate You

For everything we do, creating, leading, decision making, someone will not like it.  Especially if you put your work out for others’ consumption.  A blog, a vlog, emails to coworkers about a new project you want to start, a picture on social media of a sculpture you made; some people will say negative things about your work.  It can be hard at first to hear people say you are an idiot and tear your work apart, but you need to get over it and realize it will happen.  You cannot be liked by everyone all the time. 

In an organizational leadership context, the people that work under you will not like all of your decisions, or your ideas, or your initiatives.  If you have formal or positional power over these people, you will have to work very hard to get them to tell you to your face when they disagree with you.  This conflict is uncomfortable, it does not feel good not to wrong or when people don’t like your idea, but debate and sensemaking strengthen ideas.  Questions about your ideas are often interpreted as attacks on the idea or attacks on you as a person.  This is rarely the case; we need people to question our ideas so we can exercise their validity before we put them into operation.  Without this key function, we lose precious time and energy playing catchup when we could have discovered the flaws and developed solutions through debate early in the process. 

Not everyone will have to the courage to be candid with you even when you are open to feedback and take time to cultivate an environment that embraces candor.  Some people simply lack the courage to disagree with people in person.  You will have people that enjoy criticizing you when you leave and trash your ideas when you are gone.  This is a culture issue; if you can get them out of the organization, it is best to do so.  I’m not talking about people that are having a healthy debate about issues in the workplace.  I’m talking about the people that will say negative things about any ideas just because they are a departure from the norm.  Find people that fit the culture you are going for, we don’t need people to be parrots, have the courage to dissent from the person in charge, challenge traditional thoughts, let people think you are crazy. 

Ultimately, we need to embrace the mental exercises that take us through ideas.  If you are unwilling to entertain your people’s different ideas with even a discussion, why should they support yours with anything more than minimal compliance?

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Natural Leaders Suck

Charisma, confidence, inspirational, and many other adjectives can be used to describe a natural leader.  Those traits can be positive or negative, depending on how they are used.  Before we continue, I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything against natural leaders, I am not a natural leader, but I know many great ones, I only mean to articulate how frustrating it can be to work with them when they don’t recognize that everyone does not have the same starting point.  I want to urge those natural leaders that read this to recognize a few points that may help make organizational life better!

Not everyone who wants to lead can be a leader, not everyone who can lead will be a leader, not everyone who leads should be a leader, but sometimes will and skill align to create great leaders.  So, my view of the age-old question of are leaders made or born is…both.  Some are born with it; some develop it through deliberate effort.

Leadership is not natural for everyone.  Natural leaders tend to forget that leadership does not come naturally to everyone.  Things that are intuitive and easy to a natural leader must be learned and experienced by others before they can add them to their repertoire.  I have had to spend countless hours, reading, talking, studying, failing, listening, and experimenting to be the leader I am today.  I still have so much more room to improve and sometimes get frustrated with my shortcomings, but they motivate me to keep learning.

Not everyone wants to lead.  Those that have learned to lead need to be careful of getting jaded by natural leaders or by those that don’t put in as much effort as they feel they had to.  You can’t force people to do what you do, help them if you can and move on.  Not everyone has a desire to lead which can seem frustrating to people that have worked so hard to become leaders.  We need to remember some people want to be technical experts and only want to stay at that level.  They don’t want to get to the point that they have to manage people and deal with that entirely different skillset.  We need these people, they are the backbone of most organizations, so don’t promote them into positions that don’t utilize their skills or that make them unhappy.   Let them do what they love and where their skills align with their passion.  There are plenty of others that want to lead people.

If you want to lead and it doesn’t come naturally to you, then once you decide to learn to lead you will enter a long journey that will never really end.  You will learn more than just leadership.  I’m not talking about knowing different leadership theories or famous leaders and their books, but real leadership skills.  You will also learn more about yourself than you want to know!  Get used to being uncomfortable and get after it!

 

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THE LEADER IN THE MIRROR

Robert E. Wood

To find a potential leader in an organization, we usually do not have to go very far. Just about the time you think there aren’t any candidates to fill a leadership position, a guy like me comes along and tries to help you see the not-so-obvious. Leaders are all around us, they just have to be proactively sought out and developed. A shortage of leaders is more often than not due to a shortage of leadership and training. Not everyone can look in the mirror and readily see the leader within even though the reflection could build a great deal of influence if properly coached.

Some leaders didn’t even know they were a leader until someone else enlightened them to the fact, then all of the sudden the unwitting leader begins to focus on his/her teammate’s actions and response to his/her approach. This is the usual progression from someone who was satisfied with their current situation, then is offered an opportunity to take on a larger role in the organization.

When we say a leader’s job is to make more leaders, it’s because leaders aren’t natural born; they’re trained to help others recognize and develop their true potential. Most people, who accidentally do something great, get credit and some positive reinforcement from a leader; usually feel good enough to want to do it again. This is the beginning of the shift to greater influence.

I would rather mentor a multi-disciplined employee who has proven their commitment to the success of the organization over someone with a degree or skill. A degree doesn’t prove competence or commitment and skills can be taught. A leadership team that is focused on reinvesting in their own employees will find more of those employees recognizing the leader in the mirror.

3 Big Problems with Your Managers

Accountability, Goal Setting, and Professional Development. That’s it, very simple to identify and equally important across all professions.  Having great first-level managers and supervisors are the most important positions you can have.  They have a difficult job in trying to translate the organization’s vision & mission into tangible task the employees can accomplish.  Not only that, but they must hold the line of accountability of the employees, support the values of the organization, inspire their people to achieve excellence, and develop and train their replacements. It is a daunting task, so let’s look at how to improve the big three!

Accountability is the foundation a manager operates on.  There are tons of articles and research on this topic, but the bottom line is most managers are rated poor at holding their people accountable.  Accountability starts at the top!  The only way to get better at this is to ensure you are holding people accountable.  It will trickle down from there.  Make accountability the manager and supervisor’s core responsibility.  You must evaluate them on how well they hold people accountable.  Teach them when they make mistakes and let them figure things out.

Goals.  So often we talk about goals and how important they are, yet we fail to identify them or worse, identify them but make them impossible to achieve or measure.  It is not always easy to establish goals.  Goals of perfection are a bad idea.  Do not use them.  Voltaire said, “Perfection is the enemy of good.”  I believe what he means is if you spend too much time on perfection you waste resources that could be used elsewhere to move from 99 to 99.1.  If they were utilized properly, perhaps you could improve another area from 70 to 90%.  See this article about perfection for more reasons why Perfection is Dumb.  Being good enough and not expecting perfection will drive your organization to great success.

Professional Development. The goal of this website is to provide professional development for everyone who wishes to pursue it.  In your organization, there may be little interest in professional development, but you should make it worthwhile. Outside of producing quality content that is, in itself worthwhile, the leaders of the organization need to tie rewards to attending professional development.  It cannot be mandatory but must be highly encouraged.  Tying it to performance evaluations, bonuses, and awards will give it the importance it deserves and will begin to change the culture of the organization to where it values it intrinsically.

One thing to note is that all three of these subjects must be worked on simultaneously.  Working on them independently in a vacuum will not bring about the results you are looking for.  They complement each other and feed off one another.  To maximize the effects, they must be considered a single item with three parts.

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MANAGER IN DISGUISE?

Robert E. Wood

I’ve roughly defined a “Manager in Disguise” as someone who’s in a position of authority (leadership position) which gives them the opportunity to help steer an organization and influence others but also has no apparent leadership skills, knows it and yet still refuses to step down for the greater good. I’m often asked, why would the people in leadership positions in any organization allow such incompetence to exist and/or continue? Well, the answer to that question is: The Manager in Disguise’s boss is also a Manager in Disguise. There’s no other explanation. Just because someone is at the top of the organizational chart, doesn’t mean they’re the right person to occupy the position.

Unlike Managers in Disguise, leaders aren’t natural born; they’re created by other leaders. We all start out as managers of our own world, we teach ourselves what we can (which is limited) and then one day we show a little potential and someone takes an interest in us which leads to other opportunities. Most people welcome a promotion to a leadership position because that’s viewed as a step up on the ladder of financial success. I’ve got news for you, without a true leader teaching you how to lead and you listening, you’ll find the ladder you’re on leads to dysfunction without success. Without actual leadership training, everyone will notice that you have been promoted to your level of incompetence. The question is; what are you going to do about it? If you choose to seek out formal leadership advice and training over just continuing on with what you taught yourself, you just might find real success.

The perceptions that are attached to a leadership position like more money, influence and real power are only realized by “those who make the most of the opportunity.” The potential we possess is directly tied to our passion for a given position and/or situation. The potential we display for one position might not be enough for another and when left unchecked or more importantly, noticed and unchecked, Managers in Disguise are born. A shortage of leaders is more often than not due to a shortage of leadership. A true leader will promote and train someone with the potential for a given position and then monitor that person through perception and performance feedback from the teams. Unlike a Manager in Disguise, a leader will not allow an unsuccessful promotion to continue because it’s not healthy for the one who was promoted, the team, the organization or the customers.