Leaders Never Stop Learning

If Peyton Manning is one of the best quarter backs in the NFL, why does he have a passing coach? I believe it’s because he understands greatness is not a destination, it is a journey.

Continual development is the only way to improve upon your existing abilities and become a great leader. Even those leaders who inherently “get it” must first invest in themselves to ensure they are prepared to invest in others. Below are three rules-of-thumb I believe are essential to personal development.

  1. Take in new information: The best advice I received in college was from a guest lecturer who, on the top of personal development, said, “Read everything.” His point was, if you are not constantly taking in new ideas, you’re quickly becoming obsolete. For me this meant a small library of leadership books and countless hours surfing the web for articles. But it can also mean attending seminars, having regular meetings with a mentor, taking a class, exploring how leadership is relevant in areas outside your line of work (i.e. sports, history, exploration), and etc.
  2. Be proactive: My dad always told me, “Don’t ever be in receive mode. Only those who are proactive in searching out the answers will be successful.” Some of the leadership tools I use most often I found while flipping through leadership books and talking with people outside of my regular courses. Yes, this does require you to invest some of your free time. Few jobs let you sit in your office and read leadership books, but the investment of personal time pays off in the end.
  3. Implementation and practice: There are thousands of leadership concepts and everyone approaches them a little differently. After you’ve invested the time in learning these concepts, you need to try the out and figure out what works best for you. Because leaders deal with people, no situation will be the same. Some encounters will be more tense than others making you feel a little awkward, and that’s OK. In my first leadership role I really struggled with delegating to people who were much older than me. Even though I knew my role required me to perform this action, it was not yet comfortable. It took a few months of constantly practicing, making small adjustments to my approach, and practicing again before I truly felt comfortable.

These rules hold true for everyone, no matter their tenure or experience level. Do not fall in the trap of believing you have reached a point where you no longer need to learn. Yes, you may be at the top of your game, but everyone has room to grow.

10 Ways to Build Morale

When we talk about building morale, people often think of a large event or action that sweeps people off their feet. While these do build morale, they aren’t the only way to create a positive vibe in your building. Sometimes it’s the little every-day things that make the most impact. Here are 10 things I use to build my team’s morale.

  1. Setting high standards: People have a tendency to achieve what is expected of them. By setting the bar high and make it clear anything below that standard is not acceptable you build a culture which strives for higher standards. The key here is to provide your team with the tools they will need to win. This shows your team you believe in them, which builds their confidence and grows the team as a whole.
  2. Clear expectations: People want to know what’s expected of them. Operating in the dark and wondering if you’re on track is not fun and can create a climate of anxiety and frustration. Be intentional about your expectations and take the time to make them clear.
  3. Following up: If you set high standards or delegate a specific task, but never follow up on them, you are telling you’re people you don’t actually mean what you say. Following up shows your team you expect them to fulfill a standard, and gives you the opportunity to coach and praise.
  4. Be intentional about developing others: A strong team is always growing. Take the time to identify what areas your team is weakest in and put initiatives in place to strengthen those weaknesses. It is also important you be able to identify who on your team is being groomed to fill slots. The lead in every play has one or two understudies in the event the role is needing to be filled.
  5. Celebrating wins (Recognition): One of the best ways to build morale is recognizing people for their accomplishments. If your team is operating under a tight deadline and they meet it don’t be afraid to show them how much you appreciate their efforts. Additionally, if possible recognize publicly. While a simple thank you directly to an individual is good, public praise is great.
  6. Delegating/challenging: If you have a teammate with high potential, but you never challenge them, they get bored. This can result in a regression of their skills, or unwanted turnover. Look for opportunities to challenge people through delegation. Give stretch assignments and difficult tasks; just ensure you’re providing the tools they need to win.
  7. Ask for input: As often as possible ask for input from your team. Remember, your employees spend a large portion of their waking hours in the same area you do, and the decisions you make affect their lives. Try to involve people, especially your high potential teammates, in as many decisions as possible so they feel their voice and ideas matter.
  8. Show you’re willing to get your hands dirty: I am a store manager for a national retailer. Generally my role includes planning, organizing, follow up, etc. However, if my team is struggling to unload a truck, or lines are backed up at the register, I make a point to go down and help out. By doing this on occasion you show your team you understand the challenges they are going through, and you believe there is no “most important” job, only a team operating with a number of important pieces.
  9. Be willing to make tough decisions: As the leader you have to make the tough calls and execute the tough decisions. If you’ve set a standard and someone falls short, they need to be coached, period. Doing anything else shows you’re not serious and your team perceives you as weak. Even worse is not being consistent. If there is a standard it is your job to hold it up across the board.
  10. Social : The reality is we are social creatures who find value in spending time with others. Provide your team with opportunities to interact at work where work isn’t the primary focus.

Managing Your Own Obsolescence

I have one goal every time I step into a leadership position: To build a team that operates so efficiently and professionally they don’t actually need me.

When you work to manage your own obsolescence you create an environment where everyone is winning. There are several advantages to developing your team:

  • If everyone is operating at a higher level, your business runs more efficiently.
  • Builds moral. It is a great boost in confidence when someone says, “Hey, I believe you’re capable of this, let’s figure out how to get you there.” Additionally, people feel better when they know they are working toward something versus being stagnant in their roles.
  • You always have a plan ‘B’. How much more valuable is a quarterback who could also (proficiently) fill the role of running back.
  • If one or two people are being groomed to fill your role (or promote into a role like yours) it opens you up to focus on other areas of your business, in addition to your own personal development.

The truth is, managing your own obsolescence is hard. Any time you want to develop a person you have to invest time and energy, and for many of us this is not built into our day. With our own deadlines and quotas constantly pressing on us, it can be difficult to justify pouring hours into coaching and training. However, like any long term investment, it takes a difficult upfront investment to reap the reward later on.

Below are some of the ways I’ve found to work toward managing my own obsolescence:

  • Be open about development. Everyone who works for me knows I want them to grow. This does not mean I’m not happy with their performance, only that I believe they are capable of more. This is especially true for people in leadership roles. For this group I recommend sitting down and creating a development plan. Outline what they want their next step to be, and detail what assignments or responsibilities they can take on to prepare them for the next step.
  • Constantly challenge people. This can be through the delegation of assignments or coaching on an action or behavior. If you have a teammate who makes a mistake, sit down with them and walk through how the situation should have been handled. When an NBA coach calls a time out after the other team goes on a 15 point run, he doesn’t spend the time going over how/why they made the mistake, rather, he discusses what needs to happen going forward so they can be successful.
  • Delegation of your own responsibilities. If you’ve tapped a specific person as the individual you want to develop into your role, give them some of your own responsibilities. Give them a feel for some of the challenges you face in your role to better prepare them.
  • Set clear expectations. If you don’t do this, people don’t know where the base line is. Whether you write out a formal development plan or simply coach people as situations come up, there has to be a clear expectation first.
  • Follow up regularly. If you show interest and create a development plan, but never follow up on it, how likely is your employee to believe you are actually invested in them? When you develop people you are more of a coach than a manager, and even the best players in the world look toward their coach for feedback and validation.
  • Understand that everyone develops at a different pace. Some people eat up new challenges with vigor and want to develop quickly, while others feel more comfortable with smaller steps. Both groups and everyone in between are equally as valuable. Not everyone wants to be the CEO of the company, some just want to perfect how they operate in their current role; so long as they are developing in some direction they are meeting expectation.

Managing your own obsolescence is one of the best and hardest things about leadership. The best because you help people and the organization you represent work toward greatness. The hardest because the only way you can develop people is by devoting a fair amount of your own time and energy to the process. Despite these challenges; however, the benefits of investing in your team drastically outweigh the challenges.

Do as I Say and as I Do

Managers who set an expectation, be it a policy or procedure, but don’t practice it themselves are going to struggle leading a group. Going against your own direction is the quickest way to lose credibility and loyalty, and without those two things leadership is nearly impossible.

There are three primary reasons I’ve found managers live by a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude:

  1. They feel certain policies are for employees “lower” on the ladder than themselves.
  2. They themselves don’t believe in the program, and thus struggle to follow it.
  3. They haven’t noticed their own contradiction.

I think it’s fair to say no good leader falls under category #1, so we won’t go into that. Category #2 is a little harder. Every leader runs into policies or new initiatives they disagree with. This is one of the great struggles of being a manager in any organization; however, your role as leader is to rally the team and move forward despite your feelings. If you’ve set the expectation, your team is counting on your to follow it, just as much as you expect them to.

Category is #3 is the most common. For instance, we have a policy in our store where no teammate is allowed to have a phone on the sales floor. Yesterday when I was addressing this with the team I was called out. I and the rest of my management team always have our cell phones on us to make business-related calls. The issue was, our teammates didn’t know if we were on the phone with the general office or our spouse. All the team sees is me on my cell phone, despite a no cell phone policy.

I use the cell phone example not because it’s the most glaring example, but because it could be perceived by some managers as a non-issue. The reality is, your team sees everything, and poor opinions travel quickly. Leading by example is not reserved for the “big” things like work ethic or integrity concerns. Be it big issues or small, leaders are shouldered with the responsibility of emulating the best of what they expect out of their team.

The Power of Recognition

There isn’t a person reading this who doesn’t like to be recognized for their work. It’s ok, you’re not a narcissist, you’re just human. I know when my boss acknowledges me, especially in a public setting among my peers, I feel a sense of pride; as if all the hard work I’ve put in is worth it.

This holds true for most everyone. You can hold all the company picnics and luncheons you want, but nothing boosts morale like a pat on the back. Recognition and praise are the most effective ways to validate your team’s hard work. By recognizing a teammate and praising their behavior/action/initiative you are saying, “Yes, I’ve seen what you’ve done, I believe you’re on the right track, and I truly appreciate it.”

While recognition is great in any setting, I’ve found it is the most effective when it is done publicly. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture; it can be as simple as recognizing someone’s good idea in a meeting, or praising someone for their initiative on a project. In fact, I’ve found these smaller doses of recognition given at random show your team you’re paying attention to their work. We should always be looking for opportunities to recognize and praise our team.

In truth, noticing opportunities to recognize is very hard. Usually leaders have a number of balls in the air, many of which are on fire and screaming for attention; but it is imperative we do not get distracted by our own workloads so much that we miss the great work our teams are doing. People are doing great things around us all the time; we just have to be actively looking for them.

The beautiful thing about recognition is it does more than just build up the individual; it validates to the rest of your team what excellent looks like. If you’ve already set clear expectations, and someone blows that out of the water, your recognition of that work helps set the bar.

To that end, you don’t want to fall into the trap of giving weak or unwarranted recognition. If you praise a teammate for something that is menial or expected, then what is the incentive to shoot higher? Just as dangerous is offering insincere recognition. People can sense when praise is forced. Often false praise comes across as condescending and misleading. This will cause the teammate to question your intentions or integrity.

Praise is a great tool for any leader. If you are in tune with what is going on you will find opportunities to recognize your people, and the results are a happier, more productive team.

Slowing Down to Go Fast

Let’s say a bear is charging you, and you’ve got an empty shotgun and one shell in your hand. If you panic and begin rushing the process of loading the gun and end up dropping the shell, the bear is going to eat you for lunch. But if you drop to one knee, calmly load the gun, and take aim with a steady hand, your chances of hitting your target and removing the threat are dramatically increased.

The crises and obstacles we encounter as leaders are a lot like the bear. They often come out of nowhere and charge at you with blood thirst. You don’t always know what you did to get in the situation, but the reality is you’re stuck with it, and surviving the ordeal depends solely on your demeanor and action.

I was tested on this last week when an auditor surprised us at my store. When she visited we were already working to meet a tight deadline, so the stress level was a little high. In the end, the audit revealed some serious weaknesses in one of my key processes, and my immediate reaction was panic. However, instead of running down to the floor and barking out orders, I pulled my team aside and debriefed them. We went over how we got into the situation and what needed to be fixed. We developed a plan of action, wrote it out on paper, and communicated it with the rest of the team. It wasn’t until the next day we actually dove into the process full force to fix the issue.

By taking a day to think through the problem and evaluate the best course of action we were able to identify where our efforts would be most helpful. Additionally, I was able to use the experience to coach my team and create a plan for fixing the issue for the long term vs. the short term.

As leaders we need to show our people that panicking is not the way to enter into a stressful situation. We must fight the urge to dive in prematurely, and instead take a reasonable amount of time to assess the situation in order to provide a more clear and intentional direction.

Candor & Differentiation According to Welch

Today I was reading Jack Welch’s book, “Winning” and found myself drawn to two chapters; one on Candor and one on what he calls Differentiation.  While these concepts are simple to understand, they are excruciating to imagine executing if the behaviors are not already in place.

We’ll start with Candor.

Welch argues that a strong team is one where everyone can speak their mind without wondering what political or professional ramifications may result by their opinions. Candor allows every member of the team to feel comfortable throwing their ideas in the mix, ultimately cutting cost and time, and improving the end result. Welch said, “Lack of candor blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got.”

I began reflecting on an interaction I had with a teammate in my first week as a new manager. We were discussing a project she was working on, and due to my bluntness, hurt her feelings. I was not trying to be demoralizing or rude, but efficient. Why beat around the bush when you can get to the point, right?

While I believe whole-heartedly in this idea, the culture must exist first.  This teammate had only interacted with me a few times and took my words as an attack on her, versus a critique on the project; which was more of my issue than hers. In his book, Welch discusses how society grooms us to tailor our feedback so we don’t hurt feelings, and by being Candid in an environment where it doesn’t exist, puts people on edge. That was the mistake I made. I jumped right into a culture that doesn’t exist.

While a candid environment is better, you have to build it, and that takes time. Your employees have to trust you and know your words are meant to build rather than break down. After a few weeks, this teammate had interacted with me enough to know that my critiques were meant to coach a specific project or behavior. Daily I meet with my team and give them candid feedback, and in turn, allow them to be candid with me. This system is much more efficient and, I have found, builds trust and teamwork.

Now, let’s talk about Differentiation.

This idea, according to Welch, is much more controversial and difficult to implement. The way Welch approaches Differentiation is to file his team into three categories in terms of performance: The top 20, middle 70, and bottom 10 percent. Welch then lavishly awards his top 20, works fervently to develop the middle 70, and trims the bottom 10 percent from the company. This builds a more proficient, goal-focused team which recognizes greatness and pushes out those not dedicated to the mission.

Additionally, Welch says this concept cannot be successful if it is not acted upon. Most every leader can name their top, middle and bottom performers with little effort; however, I would imagine few share this information with each individual employee. Welch argues that, by withholding both the wins and opportunities from an employee, you adversely affect them, other employees, and the company as a whole.

Welch says identifying and praising the top 20 is the easy part of the equation. After being recognized, these individuals self regulate, mainly because they are so ambitious and driven on their own, they need a little direction and follow up, and manage the rest on their own. I also find I enjoy working with the middle 70 percent. Most of the teammates in this group are open to development, and would like to move up, but only some are willing to do what it takes to advance. The bottom 10 percent are what make this equation somewhat controversial. Welch says he gets a lot of push back from people who believe this idea is bullying; but the reality is, no one wins when you keep around someone who is not, and likely will not succeed in their current situation.


You Can’t Fight an Invisible Enemy

It’s true, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. Focusing too much on the major issues can sometimes distract us from seeing new issues develop, and you can’t react to issues lingering in the background if you haven’t gone looking for them.

All too often people are drawn into the trap of concerting all their attention on the two or three primary issues pushing their team; this is a sure way to fail. It’s like a general blindly leading his army at the largest group of defenders simply because it poses the greatest noticeable threat. This is less than helpful if a smaller unit is stalking you, slowly picking off your men from behind.

As leaders we must see 360 degrees. We can’t get tunnel vision on a single problem. There will always be an assignment or issue that requires the most attention, but if you submit and throw all your time and effort at it, you won’t see the little problems developing in the background. Often these problems are things that were not problems before. Processes which use to run smoothly suddenly begin to fall below standard because you stopped following up, and the people in charge noticed. Or a key employee quits because they were feeling underutilized and got board. The sad thing is, most invisible enemies could have been addressed had you stepped out of your current predicament and surveyed the rest of your responsibilities.

I know for a fact this is easier said than done. Just the other day, I walked into my store and was overcome with panic. Shelves looked empty and messy, we were behind on key processes, and my team seemed frustrated and disorganized. My bosses words quickly whipped me across the face. I had been so focused on two major deadlines I was working under that I had not toured my building or followed up with my team the way I usually do. I threw all my people, resources and time at the two big monsters walking around my building, that I neglected the rest of my store.

Here are a few ways I’ve found to prevent tunnel vision:

  • Put key process in the hands of the people you trust. In the event you do forget to follow up, the likelihood of things falling apart in your absence is minimal.
  • Be open with your team about existing challenges, and set clear priorities. When the rest of your team knows what they should be doing, it is easier for you to step away and take stock of your entire organization.
  • Set reminders. I know it seems obvious, but too often people don’t use this tool. To ensure I break away I set email reminders. While I use this most often to remind me of deadlines around the store and upcoming meetings, I also use it to remind me when I should follow up with a teammate, or double check a process.
  • Make sure any manager or supervisor working for you has the same safety nets in place to prevent them from getting tunnel vision. The more eyes on the bigger picture, the better.