VIDEO: 4-Step Guide to Coaching Your Employees

Coaching your employees requires commitment. It must be planned in advance, not done off the cuff.

Management today is really about enabling people to succeed and that means providing them with the guidance, resources, feedback and support they need to do their jobs.

Coupling feedback with expectations is the foundation of manager-to-employee coaching. It’s also the method by which managers can help employees and teams get the work done and promote higher levels of engagement and productivity.

First posted on SmartBrief 5/17/2013

How to Use a Downturn into Your Advantage (HBR)

The first time I heard department stores referred to as dinosaurs (e.g. facing extinction) was at least twenty-five years ago, and even then it was old news. So when Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal talking about how he was using the downturn to improve operations, I thought it wise to pay attention.

First and foremost, Lundgren is a realist. When asked if he “worried about” customers holding out for discounts, he replied: “I’m not worried about it. I’m counting on it.” Leaders need to face facts and adjust expectations to those realities. That is something that Macy’s, along with every other retailer, does. In other words, you don’t count on a turnaround, you make a turnaround happen.

How you do that varies from business to business. Leaders such as Lundgren teach us how you can use the downturn to your advantage. Not overnight, but over time. Here’s how:

Make tough choices. Now is the time to get rid of anything and everything that does not add value to the bottom line. Adhering to the principles of value engineering will help an organization optimize operations, but that is not enough. A leader must look to kill old habits. Reduce practices that “feed the monster,” that is, projects that inflate egos rather than earnings. For example, reduce the number of staff and skip-level meetings. Let people do their work rather than prepare for meetings with senior staff.

Look for the up and comers. When times are flat or in a downturn, look for new ideas. Challenge your best and brightest to make suggestions to improve operations, attract new customers, or work more collaboratively with vendors or each other.

Live resilience. This is the first significant downturn that younger employees have faced. Keep spirits high by emphasizing self-determinism. Show them how seasoned leaders respond to tough times by focusing not simply on the business, but also on the people propelling the turnaround. Good leaders use these opportunities to describe what is going right as well as what is going wrong. Acknowledge the obstacles, but show people how to go around them or climb over them.

Reality dictates that business turnarounds require economic rebounds. No leader can tweak his operation into success; you need customers to buy what you offer. But if you do not improve what you offer and how you offer it, you may miss the upswing.

Preparation for the upturn should be well underway at most organizations, but turnarounds cannot rely upon what those at the top tell financial journalists and analysts. Leaders must shepherd the spirit of the turnaround through every level of the organization so employees not only see the possibilities, but more importantly, discover what they must do to make them real.

First posted on on 8/14/2009

Ask Three Questions to Clarify Expectations (HBR)

Leave it to a comedian to invert perceptions of the leader-follower dynamic.

In 2009 Jon Stewart asked chief White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee “Is [the President] going to impeach us?” After all, Stewart mused, might the unpopularity of the President’s health care reform be due to people’s failure to follow rather than the President’s ability to lead? While Stewart, as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, was being funny, there is truth in his comments about the leader-follower relationship; both sides have roles to play.

Leaders must work hard to explain their initiatives and create conditions for people to succeed when they implement them. But equally so, followers need to work to fulfill their responsibilities to the organization that pays them. While the majority of employees do pull their weight, we all have seen examples of employees simply clocking time.

While such behavior is never acceptable, it is even less acceptable when times are trying, as they are now. So leaders need to exert their management skills to engage employees and set clear expectations. Here are three questions managers can ask to ensure that employees follow through on their responsibilities.

1. Do people know what is expected of them? Too often we assume people know their jobs. People may know the specifics, but often lack knowledge about how what they do helps the entire organization. For example, if an employee works in accounting, she needs to know how vital her job is to the efficacy of the company. Her attentiveness, as well as that of her colleagues, is essential to the company’s ability to profit. People need to be told, and reminded, of the importance of their work.

2. Do employees know what they can expect from you? It is important to let employees know that you as their manager are available to them. How you define “available” may vary from employee to employee. For new hires, you might be more teacher than boss. For veterans, you will play the coaching role. For the team, you will be the supplier of resources as well as their champion.

3. Do employees know what is expected of each other? While managers need to make certain employees are doing what is asked of them, employees must also do their part to coordinate with each other. Whether a self-managed team makes its own assignments or a manager makes the assignments, what matters most is that employees know who does what so work can be completed in a timely and responsible fashion.

Pushing for employee responsibility is not an excuse for roughshod management. If managers expect their employees to be accountable, then they must set the right example. These leaders need to handle tough issues, volunteer for tough assignments, and go the extra mile to help the organization succeed.

First posted on 8/18/2009


VIDEO: 5 Questions on Character

Character is essential to leadership and so educators and executives alike are wise to focus on it.

Recently I came across a definition of “leadership skills” offered by Jeff Nelson of the One Goal organization, which works with disadvantaged youth in Chicago.

Nelson believes that kids need to learn are “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.” These traits are important because they are inherent to a leader’s character.

First posted on Smart Brief 7/05/2013

Why Leaders Should Lighten Up (HBR)

With the economy in a coma, a pervasive unease has settled on businesses. Executives worry about the state of the company; employees fret about losing their jobs. What’s a leader to do?

Lighten up!

Work, especially when the stakes are so high, is serious enough that a manager shouldn’t add to the tension by over-managing or going around with a sour puss. It is up to the leader to inspire hope and confidence and one way to do it is by spreading some good cheer. Here are a few things to try.

Relax your mood. There is nothing a manager can do about the tanking economy, but he can do something about how he reacts to it. Grim-faced expressions do not make people want to work harder, but a frequent smile and a friendly nod can do something about the way they feel about their work.

Create laughs. World War I British troops living in trenches amused themselves by staging lighthearted theatrical productions. It was a taste of home and a reminder that as bad as things can get, we all need to laugh, if only to remind ourselves that we’re human. So find ways to lighten the mood. Spring for lunch, order cake for the break room, pass out movie tickets or DVD rental coupons, or post cartoons on the billboard. Doing these things reminds people that all work and no play makes for dull living.

Keep your door open. Let people know that you are available to chat. Most often people will come by to discuss work, but there will be times when conversation about life in general is more appropriate. This is not slack time; it’s human time. Be available when people just want to talk about things, even about the fate of the company. Be honest and open. You cannot guarantee lifetime employment, but you can promise straight talk.

There is precedence for levity. Abraham Lincoln kept his cabinet and his generals loose by telling stories that would amuse but were also instructive. Case in point. When associates sought to poison the reputation of U.S. Grant by calling him a drunkard, Lincoln famously quipped, “Send whatever Grant is drinking to the rest of my generals.” Grant was winning; the other Union generals were not.

Franklin Roosevelt held regular happy hours in the White House, even during the darkest days of the Depression and the Second World War. It was a time to kick back, gossip, and share some laughs.

No one would call Lincoln or Roosevelt inattentive to their situations; both men knew how to find a moment of distance from reality as a means of refreshing themselves and their aides.

Few would argue for excessive levity — that’s foolhardiness. A manager needs to keep the team focused on the priorities at hand, but she can do it while being professional about the work and appropriately lighthearted with the people who do it, including herself.

First posted on 8/21/2009

VIDEO: Before You Start Making Changes…

Change is part of organizational life — inevitable, unsettling and necessary.

Too often when managers are pushed to improve, they make changes without taking stock of the situation and their talent. So, before you embark upon a change process, learn to ask yourself and your team five critical questions.

Knowing what you are now, coupled with the fortitude to push for positive change, is what leaders today need to succeed in our turbulent times.

First posted on SmartBrief on 7/19/2013

Don Hewitt: Why Leaders Need Stories (HBR)

“Even the people who wrote the Bible were smart enough to know, ‘tell them a story.’ The issue was evil in the world, the story was Noah…. Now the Bible knew that and for some reason or another I latched on to that.”

That was Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of one of the longest running show in U.S. television history, 60 Minutesexplaining the “secret” of his success. According to Steve Croft, a 60 Minutes correspondent, Hewitt did not concern himself with issues per se; he focused on stories shaped by those issues, be it war, consumer fraud, health investigations, or celebrity profiles.

Hewitt, who died this month at the age of 86, was fond of saying that every child realizes the importance of “tell me a story” — but when we reach adulthood, we forget. Yet Hewitt’s absolute commitment to story is something leaders, particularly those with big initiatives to push, should remember. Story is a form of person-to-person connection that leaders, as fellow contributor Stew Friedman writes, can use to connect with their followers.

There are three reasons why a good story can be a useful leadership tool:

To inform. We all want the facts, but if a leader wants the facts to matter he needs to add a little seasoning. Stories can take raw data and give it life. For example, why not use a spreadsheet to tell a story about rising sales, or declining quality? Use the data to make your points. Then, flesh out that explanation with stories about the effect on individuals, teams and the company as a whole.

To involve. If you need to get people on your side, you need to involve them in the process. You need to engage their interest. For example, if an executive needs to persuade people to support an initiative, she can describe how the initiative will benefit the customer but also emphasize how it will improve the lot of employees, too. (More customers, more sales, more revenues, more jobs, more opportunities for promotion, etc.)

To inspire. Employees become jaded; there is only so much “importance” they can absorb, even when their jobs are at stake. So it falls to leaders to find ways to inspire their teams. Stories are the ideal vehicle for inspiring people because successful ones can dramatize the human condition. A story about a customer service representative who drove to the house of a customer to rectify an error, or a sales person who drove through a raging blizzard to close a sale, can quickly become the stuff of corporate legend. These stories give sustenance in times of travail, and say to an employee faced with long odds, “If he can do it, so can I.”

There is another advantage to using stories, and that’s something that Hewitt alluded to with his reference to the Bible. Use stories to make your points rather than relying on platitudes. In fiction writing workshops, they call this “Show, don’t tell.” For executives, this means you have to avoid corporate speak; instead, tell stories about how your initiatives will improve the lives of customers and employees.

Not every issue need be reduced to a story. There are times when a leader needs to be direct and to the point, to lay out the issue and the challenges in clear and precise language. For example, if a company is losing market share to a competitor, the sales manager might want to quantify the decline in sales by percentage and by lost revenue. Yet even in such circumstances, that same executive could drive the message home by naming the lost customers and describing the effect of their loss on the company.

A leader picks the right story at the right time to drive her point home, leaving no doubt about the importance of an initiative and its impact on the organization. It’s up to a leader to use stories to dramatize urgency and humanize events — so that listeners become followers.

First posted on 8/24/2009