When the Going Gets Tough, Act the Part (HBR)

When times are tough, people want to see their leaders act. Bold statements make headlines but actions provoke results. If an action is to be sustained, it must be reinforced by what followers do. In my new book, Lead By Example, 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results, I discuss some of the ways leaders act for the benefit of the organization.

Manage by inclusion. It’s human nature to seek input from people we know best. Leaders are no different, but they have an obligation to seek out alternative points of view. Failure to do so leads to unilateral thinking, that is, everyone adopting the same point of view. That may be good for cheerleading squads, but it gets organizations into trouble. One way to avoid this trap is to make certain that people feel free (as well as safe) to voice opinions contrary to prevailing thought. That will only happen if the leader goes out of her way to seek alternate approaches.

Delegate for results. Pre-schoolers don’t mind being shown how to do something once or twice, but pretty soon they want to do it themselves. The same goes for those you lead. Give people directions but never tell them how to do something. Let them figure it out for themselves. Nowhere does this apply more than in setting goals. As a colleague of mine says, “Delegate for results, not tasks.” That is, tell people what needs to be done, but do not give them a to-do list.

Make a decision. If leaders truly are to propel the action, they must make decisions. Consultation with others, as discussed, is vital, and so too is deliberation. But sooner than later someone needs to pull the trigger when it comes to big decisions. Acting deliberately and decisively is essential to achieving intended results.

Another aspect of action is a leader’s behavior. How a person leads is often as important as what a leader does. The way a leader communicates, delegates, supervises and recognizes matters. People are not inclined to follow someone who is simply going through the motions; they want a leader who thinks about the impact of his decisions on others. This is especially true in times of crisis. Leaders accomplish little by themselves; they need the actions of others to succeed.

First posted on HBR.org on 10.15.2008

VIDEO: Turn Losing into Winning

“I don’t think you learn anything from winning. You just jump up and down, it’s wonderful, it’s fabulous, it’s glorious. But losing — there’s a deeper music in loss.”

Author Pat Conroy, who passed away in 2016, said that in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in 2002 about his book The Losing Season.” The book chronicles his time as a basketball player for The Citadel, a South Carolina military academy.

As Conroy says, losing may teach us more than winning does — when you listen to your own inner voice.

And here again is where Conroy offers good advice. “I had to listen to my voice. I had to find confidence by listening to me because I could not find it listening to [others].”

Leaders, too, need to follow their own inner voice. Call it an inner compass that is one part moralistic — pointing toward what it good — and another part motivation, stirring us to action.

Taken as a whole, such a compass stimulates a leader to persevere in times of hardship.

First posted on SmartBrief on 12/30/2016

What Leaders Need to Do Right to Move Up (HBR)

A colleague of mine, Scott Eblin, likes to ask a question when speaking to groups of high-potential executives. “How many of you are, or have been referred to as, the go-to person in your organization?” Nearly all hands go up. While this is good, such self-identification does not tell the whole story. As stated in a new white paper developed by his firm, The Eblin Group, “expectations become broader and more nuanced and complex with successive promotions… the go-to person style become less and less tenable.”

Clearly leaders need help in developing behaviors that will help them succeed at higher levels of management. New research by the Eblin Group identifies five key behaviors that high potential leaders identify as important to successful senior management positions. “[T]hese are the positive behaviors that make ‘go-to people’ the go to people.” Let’s take them one at a time.

Strong desire to see team succeed. Leaders put the team first. That means they put people in positions to succeed and recognize those who achieve. This mindset begins with a desire for success as well as the authority to make things happen. That’s where leaders come in. They act for the good of the team.

Mental acuity and engagement. You need some smarts to be a senior leader but you also need to put those mental powers to good use. You need to engage the interest and passions of individuals. You need to help them see the vision and discover their role in fulfilling it.

Stamina/energy to perform. Management is a tough job. You possess a capacity for hard work. Smart leaders also realize that their survival depends on staying focused. Many do this through exercise and eating right. A leader’s ability to be in charge demands peak performance; stamina plays a role.

Positive image for the organization. The higher the position the brighter the light shines. Yet how many times have we witnessed senior corporate leaders wilt when the heat is on? The current financial crisis is a major case in point. Senior leader after senior leader proved that the “emperor had no clothes” when questioned about financial practices at their institutions. Accountability is critical for those at the top.

Openness and honesty in communications. Respect for others begins with being straight. Withholding critical bits of information, failing to give feedback, and hiding bad news are venal crimes that should strike any manager off the list for higher consideration. Rather look to those who share information and use it to help people succeed.

There is an underlying theme in four of these behaviors and it is this: leaders accomplish little by themselves; they can accomplish much by working with others. Those who are in positions of identifying and grooming next generation leaders would do well to select managers who know how to achieve results through the actions of others. Competency will get you promoted one or two rungs on the ladder; working with and through others will open doors to senior leadership.

First posted on HBR.org 11/13/2008


VIDEO: When “No” Can Lead to “Yes”

The most valuable resource a good executive employs is her time.

In her book “Year of Yes,” television executive producer and writer Shonda Rhimes shares that her way of budgeting time was to say “no” to everything but work in order to spend more time at home. This was a strategy that enabled Rhimes to devote time to her children as well as find time to write.

Like Rhimes, all busy executives must learn to their time wisely.

When you are in an executive position, demands on your time escalate. People always want you to make decisions, and after all that’s what good executives are paid to do.

For this reason, an executive must learn to say “no” — as a means to saying “yes.” By this, I mean, you eliminate distractions by focusing on what requires your attention the most.

First posted on SmartBrief on 9/09/2016

Why You Need to Be a Happier Manager (HBR)

Take note, managers: Happiness can be passed from person to person, even from strangers.

A groundbreaking study by researchers at Harvard and the University of California San Diego demonstrates in the words of Nicholas Christakis, M.D. “Emotions have a collective existence – they are not just an individual phenomenon.” He told the New York Times that “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two or three degrees removed from you.”

What this means for managers is that their actions, positive or negative, can influence the emotional health of others. Common sense may have told us this but this study affirms a principle of positive organizational scholarship, in fact that happiness can be “contagious.” This finding could not have come at a better time. With the economic travails grinding away the edges of even the most optimistic managers, this research may give impetus to managers who want to do something to cheer up their teams. Here’s how:

Resolve to cheer. It is a leader’s job to spread confidence. Optimism is critical. While few of us can do anything to affect business conditions, we can control what occurs on our watch, in our organizations. Therefore, managers owe it to their people to look on the bright side, when possible. Not naively, but resolutely. Optimism is not an excuse to be oblivious; it is an obligation of leadership.

Pick your moments. Too much optimism and good cheer, especially in the wake of layoffs or serious downturns, may seem foolhardy. And, in fact, may be perceived as such. That’s why the manager has to choose her moments carefully. When it comes to radiating optimism, you don’t do it when layoffs are announced or poor earnings reports are published. Rather you do it when you think people need that extra boost, that extra bucking up.

Keep on doing it. The story of legendary explorer, Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated but heroic journey to the Antarctic is well known, in particular that every man with him was saved. What is less known is exactly how much attention to morale Shackleton paid. He shared his rations with the sick, ensured everyone had proper clothing, and spread confidence as best he could. My favorite story is that of Shackleton skiing out over the ice to bring hot tea to men returning from a periodic supply trek to their abandoned ship, Endurance.

What’s more, there may also be a business incentive in happiness. James Fowler, co-author of the study, told the Times, “if your friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.” In recessionary times that should be music to the ears of any manager seeking ways to improve morale. While happiness will not make up for real (or perceived) shortcomings in compensation, a happy workplace, as researchers for generations have demonstrated, does make coming to work a more pleasant experience. Productivity even improves, and so too does engagement.

Happiness will not save a failing enterprise. That will require gumption and grit, as well as a strong business plan and marketable products and services. But an elixir for keeping organization in good spirits may be a dollop of managerial cheerfulness.


First posted on HBR.org 12/08/2008


VIDEO: Put Passion in Your Pocket When You Argue

Passion may hurt you more than help you in your next argument.

That’s a conclusion of new research into persuasion by a pair of university academics and reported by Shankar Vedantam of NPR. Passion, often highly prized by leaders, may actually work against that leader if he or she is trying to reach out to someone who may not agree with them.

This new research into persuasion really is confirmation of what all good leaders do when seeking consensus; they first seek to understand what the other is thinking and why they are thinking it.

To become more persuasive consider these three questions:

  1. How does the other person see the world? This question addresses the other person’s value system.
  2. How can I frame my argument in terms my opposite understands? Relate your values to the others. When you scratch the surface many people can agree on what is good for others – love, security, opportunity and integrity.
  3. How can we find common ground? Know what you know about the other person you have a foundation upon which to build your argument. Focus on the values the other person holds and relate them to values you hold.

First posted on SmartBrief on 9/23/2016

Failure to Accept Responsibility Is a Failure to Lead (HBR)

It was caused by forces out of our control. That line is not from a 1950s sci-fi movie in reference to aliens taking over the world. Rather it seems to be the assessment of many senior leaders in the financial services industry as to the causes of the economic meltdown.

“Nobody was prepared for this” is what Robert Rubin, a senior official at Citigroup, told the Wall Street Journal in 2008. “Maybe there are things, in context of the facts [the board] knew then, we should have done differently,” Rubin admits. Not acting “differently,” however, caused Citigroup to lose $20 billion over the past year and to receive $45 billion in federal assistance. Although Rubin turned down his 2007 bonus, he has earned $115 million from Citigroup since joining the firm in 1999. As for “regrets,” Rubin told the Journal, “I guess I don’t think of it quite that way… If you look back from now, there’s an enormous amount that needs to be learned.”

One thing that may need to be learned (or re-learned) is a lesson in responsibility. It rests on three principles.

Be aware. Every leader needs to take a moment to drink up the action. You need to step back from the day to day flow and assess what is happening. Acknowledge what is going well as well as what is going poorly. Always be aware that things are not always as they seem and be prepared for surprises.

Accept consequences. Few executives need schooling in taking credit, but too many need some reminding about what happens when things go wrong. Accepting the consequences for failure is not a sign of weakness; it’s a measure of leadership. While no one likes to fail, the sooner you accept what happened, the sooner you can move forward.

Resolve to improve. Some crises are too great for the current leadership to continue. We are seeing replacements of CEOs in nearly every business sector. But the majority of senior executives have their jobs, or new ones, and so they will need to discover ways to improve things. That starts with a resolution to make a positive difference. In crisis it means sacrificing short-term gains, e.g. bonus compensation, for long-term growth.

Behavioral scientists teach us that the first step in recovery is an acknowledgement of responsibility. But sadly too few executives are holding themselves accountable. This is not only bad for the future of our economy. It sets a poor example to younger managers and those about to become managers. Forget what you might have learned in school (or from your parents), these executives seem to say, do what you want to do and deny responsibility.

“The price of greatness,” said Winston Churchill, “is responsibility.” Something the all of us facing tough times need to remember.

First posted on HBR.org 12/02/2008

Every Leader Needs a Laugh (HBR)

One of my favorite parts of the Harvard Business Review is the cartoon section. Of course, the articles make the magazine distinguished, but the cartoons make me laugh. Every month the aptly named “Strategic Humor” section is what I turn to first. In these tough times I enjoy cartoons that regularly puncture the self-inflated bubble of our management culture.

Senior managers are a special target; everyone loves to see them taken down a peg. Also satirized are silly “feed the monster” practices that do nothing but waste time. But even ordinary employees are fair game especially when they play the “suck up” games with higher-ups. Here are some of my recent favorites and some lessons they teach.

Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. That’s the theme of a cartoon depicting a staff meeting of mice at the office to which the presenting mouse points to a graphic depicting a downturn, “And here the cat was away…” Another cartoon featuring a boss asking a stone-faced subordinate “Well, then, when would be a good time to talk about your procrastination?” [November 2008 Harvard Business Review]

You can spin anything. “By golly, Jones, I like your optimism. I didn’t know we had a fifth quarter,” exclaims a puffed up looking senior executive time. So true! Haven’t we all been in meetings where subordinates will say anything to their boss just to make him happy? And worse, the boss is too clueless to recognize the lies. [October 2008]

Talent is overrated. “First off, let me allay your fears of being overqualified” says a manager to an employee. In another cartoon, a manager hands a performance evaluation to a debonairly attired employee who replies nonchalantly, “I never read my reviews.” The caption to a cartoon featuring employees performing song and dance routines says, “We’ve invested heavily – if not always wisely–in talent.” [June 2008]

Employees are disposable. This is a common theme. “Hey don’t worry. It’s a layoff. It’s not as if you did anything wrong,” chimes an oversized boss to a diminutive and sniveling employee. In another cartoon another laid off employee is seen carrying out his belongings to which he mutters, “More grist for my blog.” [October 2008]

Like it or lump it. Everyone has stories about incentive plans. For example, a boss explains to an erstwhile employee seated before him. “Certainly we have an employee incentive program. We call it payday.” One employee complains to another, “I’d quit, but the company can only afford a wooden parachute.” And finally, an employee pushing a shopping cart is shown the door to the stock room. The caption reads, “How’s this for a severance package? Five minutes to grab all you can get.” [March 2008]

What so many, if not all of the cartoons, have in common is a jaded view, and healthy irreverence, for ill-conceived management practices and too self important executives. And for that reason, I will go on reading them for the laughter they provide, and the insights they deliver. Good stuff for these hard times in which we work.



First posted on HBR.org on 12/29/2008

VIDEO: How Can I Help You Do Your Job Better?

A question employees love to hear: How can I help you do your job better?

That is one of the most potent questions in management for a senior executive to put to an employee. Offering such assistance is recognition by the executive that his job is to help others do their jobs better.

When you hire people who are motivated to stretch themselves to reach goals for themselves and their teams, providing support for them stokes the fire of their engines.

Failure to acknowledge them, or worse, failure to support them with resources, is what is demotivating. Not words of praise.

A leader who believes his or her job is to help others is a leader who knows what it takes to inspire others to do their best work.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8/19/2016

Leadership Lesson from My Mother-in-Law

“They gave us a whole can of soda” was how my late mother-in-law explained a recent experience when her plane was kept on the ground an extra hour for de-icing. Monica was not complaining; she was framing the delay as a positive. This veteran traveler knows that delays are inevitable.

My mother-in-law’s attitude might serve as a good reminder for anyone who is seeking ways to cope with forces that seem to threaten the economic stability we have come to count on. Falsely, as it turns out — but nonetheless many of us may be tempted to think that the recession is a personal attack on us. Recessions as severe as this are equal-opportunity levelers; that is, most of us suffer.

Managers might do well to keep this in mind as they seek to keep their teams engaged. Our culture is one of aspiration; it sparks our quest for improvement as well as our desire to innovate. Fueling that aspiration becomes all the more critical when attitudes and resources are compromised. So here are some ways to keep aspiration alive while dealing with hard realities.

Know what you cannot do. This part is easy. None of us can make our customers buy our products or services. We can wish for the economy to improve, but we cannot make it so. Therefore, we must accept what is given us and find ways to do what we can do.

Know what you can do. This part is tough. But as legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, put it, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Think about how you can prepare your team to think and act differently, in light of tough economic conditions.

Know that you must execute. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Economist’sWorld in 2009,” says that while salaries and perks are diminished, there will be an increased focus on execution, that is, getting the work done. Managers must keep this idea paramount as they nudge their teams forward.

As much as managers may seek to bolster team spirits, they must do so in the spirit of “eyes wide open,” being cognizant of what individuals on the team are going through. Some folks may be laid off; the rest may wonder if they are next. “Rah-rah” does not work. But seeking to take control of what you can control is a sign that no matter the economic climate, you are seeking to make a positive difference.

Accepting reality is no excuse for giving up. We may decide to abandon a project for lack of funds, or even a change in market conditions. That decision is not the same as giving up the company; perhaps the project will be revived in the future when the market swings upward once again. Rather, it is an acceptance that a change has occurred — and that we in turn must change our expectations.

First posted on HBR.org 12/23/2008