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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Organizations are Like Hair

When I was young and wild, I had beautiful hair.  To be honest, I’ve never cared for hair since I was in the 9th grade I’ve been cutting it as short as possible, and I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have no idea what color my hair is anymore. So, although I do not fit the bill, the metaphor I’m about to make, still works.  That metaphor is that organizations are like hair.

I know people that cut their hair every two weeks.  They never change the style, they never experiment.  They know what works and they are the guys that say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, “you don’t mess with the classics.”  They keep tight control over their hair and never let it get out of sorts.  This example shows what most leaders and managers want in their organizations.  They fight to stay standardized and look to control as much of their processes as possible.  There are many organizations that this works for, but this kind of leadership does not leave room for innovation and progress.  You can’t adjust processes and functions when you are doing the same things.

Additionally, you can’t change your hairstyle in any meaningful way without going through that weird medium length sloppy-hair stage.  You know, the stage where some will only lay flat and others will only stick straight up.  This is the stage where you test your commitment to the new style.  How much do you want it? If you are weak, or if you aren’t sure of what you want, you will quit and go back to what you know.  This stage in the organization is where most leaders lose their nerve and think the new efforts have failed.  On many occasions, this early exit is a tragic mistake which causes future efforts to die before they even happen.  Leaders must accept there is going to be growing pains with progress.

Eventually, you will have to cut your hair.  That doesn’t mean you have to go back to your old style, but you do need to get it back under control and set things right again.  Organizationally, this means you have to pull the crazy experimenting back a bit and look at providing more stable processes.  There will always be a need to experiment and take some risk, but after letting your people get wild and outside of the box, you will need to bring all that back in and get the balance back to the organization.  Too much wild-wild-west type of stuff in the organization can be exhausting so you will want to keep some of the momentum going for progress, without so much risk and experimenting.

So, let your hair grow and give your people some room to try new stuff!

 

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Do Tradition and Heritage Hold You Back?

Standardization ruins organizations.  Once we get to the point that we are trying to make everyone do the same thing, without thought, we are doomed.  Most organizations and the people within them get into a rhythm.  They have the same annual events, traditions, and these events are rarely discussed with any serious intent.  The members of the organization are expected to uphold these traditions, and the leaders often expect everyone to participate.  But do these traditions do anything positive for the organization?

It depends.  Most of our traditions are no longer providing value to our processes but are more about culture.  But even traditions that contribute to culture can be problematic.  The military’s Change of Command Ceremony is one such example.  When the ceremony was created, it was done so out of necessity.  Most personnel in a military unit did not know who the commander of the unit was, and it caused much confusion on the battlefield.  This ceremony was designed to show everyone who the new commander was to alleviate that problem, and it worked.  Fast-forward to today, and we continue the tradition, but there is rarely an occasion where members will not know who the unit’s commander is, but we still spend weeks preparing for these ceremonies every two years.  The commander’s and their families enjoy them, and it is a great honor for them to earn a command, but almost everyone else is there because they are required.  The officer/enlisted structure is also antiquated and has lost its usefulness.  On the positive side, the military’s uniforms, many of the customs to include saluting, standing for senior members, reveille, retreat, taps, and countless others add to the discipline and positive culture of the units.

And what about the senior members of the organization?  Could they be holding back innovation?  Much like standardization, continuity is a term we must be careful with.  There is a point that continuity stops helping and starts holding the unit back from progress.  Something that was tried in the nineties may very well work now.  Not because we are better, but because technology may have made things easier than they were in the past.  We need to ensure our senior members value change and progress over standardization and continuity.

We must be cautious of sacrificing any future progress for short-term gains.  It might be tempting, but the short-term gains that too much standardization and continuity provide are addictive and will become the culture your organization begins to form around.  Soon enough, your organization will become irrelevant because short-term gains cannot compete with long-term progress.  Of course, this is not easy, and nobody has the perfect answer, but we must be brave enough to have the conversation.  It may feel bad to say the DoD no longer needs a separate officer and enlisted core, especially from the officer’s perspective, but it’s a conversation we must have, or we risk becoming too caught up in tradition.

 

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Leadership Lessons From The Fireplace

We are all Tools!

When I was a kid growing up in Southern Utah almost everyone I knew had a fireplace or a wood burning stove of some kind. Almost without exception, sitting next to the wonderful heat producing factory was a kit of tools. In this kit contained a mini shovel, broom and what we called a poker! The shovel was used to remove the ashes from the fireplace, the broom for cleaning the around the fireplace after you inevitably spilled ash and charred wood on the floor. My favorite, the poker, was used to stoke the fire, move burning logs around so you could place additional pieces in the fire.

As managers and leaders in organizations, regardless of size, we have to always be mindful that we are leading people who have specific talents, skills, and abilities. Each of your employees is different! They have different drivers, biases, abilities, etc. and leaders need to take the time and get to know their team members. Who are the extroverts, introverts, the career driven, the content, the charismatic and the list goes on.

Talent management is vital to achieving the goals and overall mission of that organization. We are not the same and cannot all achieve the same level of performance at each task as everyone else. For instance, the shy, introverted, data analyst is not the best person to give a facility tour of your new freight distribution center to prospective clients. You have to pick a different tool for that job. If you have an underperforming branch and need a quick turn-around, who do you send? A poker! Not a broom or a shovel, you need someone to move things around, shake things up and stoke the fire. Who is your poker? When your organization suffers from loss, whether a tragic personal loss or your poker pushed the team and they still did not meet the goal, what leader do you send?

Very few companies are operating at this level of leadership and management. It requires deliberate thought and deliberate action to specific situations. We are tools. I am a specific tool for specific jobs. I know my limits and will not let personal pride hinder my team from accomplishing our goals and the overall mission of my organization. I will call in other leaders/tools to deal with specific situations when I am beyond my limits.

Be aware that some of your brooms want to be pokers and vice versa. This is dealt with during feedback and in my experience will cause conflict, which is good. If you go back to your conflict-resolution training, avoidance, in this case, is not an option. A broom can never be a poker!

The next time you see some ashes try to pick them up with the poker! You will see my point…

I’ll leave you with this;

What tools are sitting next to your fireplace?

-Do you need more options?

Are you aware of the tools you have available to deal with all the situations in your company?

Unfortunately, unlike purchasing a Fireplace Took Kit online for about $100, developing your supervisors and managers to look for the right person to attack specific concerns will not be that simple, but well worth your time to invest in.