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The Leadership Challenge… Again.

I saw an article earlier this month titled “How to Spot an Incompetent Leader”. I rolled my eyes, expecting to see a case for personality traits rather than communication effectiveness. I was right about that, but it was an interesting article, nonetheless.

Here’s a sample: “competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement and productivity”. Well, yes, of course they do. But how do they do it? With their charming personality? Or by knowing when, how and why to communicate with their people? The article says the personality trait that is most highly correlated with incompetent leadership is arrogance, or over-confidence. Maybe so. But I’d like to clarify two things.

First, that leadership is defined as the ability to “draw people together toward something”. That is a two-dimensional capability: pulling people together and moving them ahead to reach a goal. I understand that being self-centered could distract from accomplishing both of those things.

Second, drawing people together to accomplish something is not simply a matter of personality. It takes productive communication to make that happen. (You knew I would say that, didn’t you?)

  1. Talk about the goal. Clarify what we all want to make happen, why it is important and how we will know when we are successful. A clear and worthwhile goal, with timelines and measures of progress – a scoreboard of sorts – helps give everyone a sense of purpose. It “draws people together toward something”.
  2. Engage the people. Talk with people about the goal and discuss ideas for reaching it. Listening is important here: use people’s ideas wherever they make sense. Meetings and one-on-one conversations should include mention of the “game and the scoreboard”, plus respect for team member input.
  3. Develop management skills where possible. The people on a team will need to reach out to others, perhaps both inside and outside your organization, in order to achieve the goal. Whether they are in other departments or outside customers or vendors, goals are reached by productive networks of agreements. Have at least some team members make requests, make promises, and create and manage agreements with “outsiders” to achieve specific results toward the goal.
  4. Review progress regularly. Weekly or bi-weekly meetings are the forum for examining the progress made on goal, measures, and timelines as well as the successful delivery on agreements with other key players. This also serves to train team members in being accountable for creating agreements and supporting their fulfillment.

These four conversations are what ensure that “competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity” in the workplace, as mentioned in the article. True, as the article points out, incompetence is likely to be a product of putting too much attention on oneself, which looks like arrogance or narcissism. Competent leadership puts attention on drawing people together – by talking with them and listening to them – while making the goal the center of the conversation.

It is fine to have several goal-endeavors going at once, if you can handle it. Each goal-team will have its own version of the four conversations identified above, focused on accomplishing something specific and of value. Not everyone is able to be a leader, but that’s alright.  Still, according to this article, we probably should not put people who think they are the center of the universe in positions where we want them pulling people together to achieve something important.

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

Feeling and Thinking Happen Inside Us.  Communication Happens Between Us.

“Being a manager involves a lot more than just setting targets and entering numbers into a spreadsheet. It requires empathy and an understanding of human nature.”  That’s a quote from The Economist, December 14, 2019.

Wow.  A recommendation that a human manager should have empathy and understand human nature -imagine that! What would a workplace look like if that were the case? Well, start with empathy: “Experiencing the feelings of another as one’s own”. (That’s from a Merriam Webster Dictionary). And understanding: “The knowledge and ability to judge” (same dictionary). So, a manager should be able to experience other people’s feelings as their own, as well as knowing and being able to judge human nature.

The problem is, with just those two capacities alone, the workplace really wouldn’t look much different than it does now. The reason is that experiencing empathy and understanding human nature are both ‘internal states’ – they occur inside people. Are we sure those internal states will leak out into our interactions with others in a way that is effective or useful? A manager can be a lofty and inspired person, but that doesn’t mean their communication is lofty and inspired, does it?

Fortunately, that article in The Economist’s was also applauding the use of the arts in training business managers. Training sessions included participants who practiced conducting a choir, reading and discussing a novel, and even acting our roles in a play. One tutor said, “We help people to become more aware of their habits; what they do without realizing it. How people manage their physicality – their breath, their voice. Not many people are aware of how they come across.” That is surely true.

Empathy and understanding occur in an internal world of feeling and thinking. Practicing communication with others – whether in daily conversations and discussions, or in using the language of music, discussing characters in a book, or acting out roles in a story – well that would create a self-awareness that internal states alone cannot bestow.

To support and increase self-awareness in conversations at work, managers could assure direct reports that if they communicate both freely and respectfully, their perspectives and ideas will be welcomed and considered. In other words, managers can give others permission to practice communicating, and thereby to learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

Most of us live inside of our own thinking and feeling much of the time. But the world of interactions between individuals and groups occurs in the communication space around each of us, a space that we create with our words and actions, and our listening for others. When we notice that space, we can bring ourselves there and, eventually, learn to see ourselves as others see us. It’s a powerful lesson in self-development.

Your 1-week Bargain on Books for People Who Think!

Our publisher for “The Four Conversations” book is Berrett-Koehler, a source of quality books for people who want to make a difference in something that matters to them. Right now, they are having a 1-week book sale. Berrett-Koehler is especially known for its high-credibility publications on leadership, effectiveness, and getting results in a variety of fields. Take a look – Publisher Book Sale!

I especially like the books for people who are interested in the world of management – one is Henry Mintzberg’s latest – “Bedtime Stories for Managers” – love that title!  I know several people who will enjoy it.

Anyway, starting today, Dec. 2nd through next Monday, Dec. 9th, ALL of Berett-Koehler’s books, including eBooks and Audiobooks, are 40% off with Free Shipping.  And 50% off if you want to be a member.  Just go to Publisher Book Sale and use the code PRESENTS.  You can get the book-gifts that will let you give a nice boost for those people who matter to you – co-workers, colleagues, family or friends.

Best to you all for an enjoyable holiday season. Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Your 1-week Bargain on Books for People Who Think!

Our publisher for “The Four Conversations” book is Berrett-Koehler, a source of quality books for people who want to make a difference in something that matters to them. Right now, they are having a 1-week book sale. Berrett-Koehler is especially known for its high-credibility publications on leadership, effectiveness, and getting results in a variety of fields. Take a look – Publisher Book Sale!

I especially like the books for people who are interested in the world of management – one is Henry Mintzberg’s latest – “Bedtime Stories for Managers” – love that title!  I know several people who will enjoy it.

Anyway, starting today, Dec. 2nd through next Monday, Dec. 9th, ALL of Berett-Koehler’s books, including eBooks and Audiobooks, are 40% off with Free Shipping.  And 50% off if you want to be a member.  Just go to Publisher Book Sale and use the code PRESENTS.  You can get the book-gifts that will let you give a nice boost for those people who matter to you – co-workers, colleagues, family or friends.

Best to you all for an enjoyable holiday season. Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

How Important is Appreciation as a Part of Employee Feedback?

One client, Amos, managed a group of 14 people who took the Group Workplace Assessment – with a surprising set of results. Amos had convinced me that he had “great relationships” with his staff, but those results said otherwise. Among the “Top Ten” issues identified by his staff were these 3 responses:

  1. There isn’t any follow-through on people who don’t keep their agreements or do complete work.
  2. People are seldom recognized or thanked for what they do, even when they go the extra mile to accomplish something.
  3. Some people expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

What did those responses have in common? They all point to a lack of useful feedback – specifically, to appreciating their work.

For #1, when people don’t get feedback on their work – whether to approve their results or point out a problem – they may lose confidence and start second-guessing themselves. This can begin a process of erosion in work timeliness, accuracy, or creativity. Or all three.

In #2, an expression of appreciation for the work they do is missing, meaning people are likely to lose energy and a sense of providing value to others, or to the organization. Work becomes ho-hum, and if my work doesn’t matter, it loses its purpose.

And #3 underscores the cost of too little attention and appreciation: work slows down, staff loses interest in doing a good job, and others around them will soon be infected by this “sleeping sickness”. Keeping workers energized and alert is a function of attention and appreciation.

Amos was so proud of his staff that he did not see a need to provide positive feedback. “They just keep the pace around here”, he bragged. “They don’t need to be micro-managed.” He was mad at himself for not seeing his lack of attention.

A CEO who writes 9,200 employee birthday cards a year shows, in this article, that he knows the power of positive feedback – a thank-you and special recognition from a boss will make a big difference in people’s relationship to their work. His people know they matter, and that they are making a difference on the job.

This is the power of what we call “Closure Conversations”. These conversations have 4 ingredients – the Four A’s – though not all are necessary to use in every Closure Conversation.

  • The first is Acknowledgment, stating what has happened. “Your work results are good, and you missed one thing over here. But you got the other six done completely.”
  • The second is Appreciation. “Thanks for doing it this way, because it makes our next Board meeting easier for the members and will help them to finish their year-end report.”
  • The third is Apology. “I see that I didn’t make clear the way to structure this middle section. I had expected to see it summarized as a list, not as paragraphs, so I hope you don’t mind doing a bit of cleanup. I think it will be clearer to see the big picture if you do it that way. Sorry for my lack of clarity.”
  • The fourth is to Amend the understanding of the job, which updates the work agreement as needed. “I know it will take extra time to reformat this, so let’s extend the deadline to Tuesday before our team meeting. That will leave enough time for us all, in case team members need to edit anything further before Friday.”

In a sense, all four of those items are “positive feedback”. Each one tells you that someone is paying attention to your work in a constructive way. And you know what to do with each of those A’s: recognize what others see in your work, enjoy the appreciation, accept the apology graciously, and interact with the coaching given by making amendments.

The 9,200 birthday cards is over-the-top Appreciation, although I’m sure it pays off for that CEO in people’s willingness to invest themselves. But in the case of Amos, he will be learning to use all four of the Closure Conversation elements. He says he wants effective workers on his staff, so it’s time for him to start practicing all “Four A’s”. I suggest starting with Appreciation.

NOTE: If you want to get your group’s feedback on what they see as their “workplace issues”, the Group Assessment survey will add up their responses to 56 questions while maintaining the individual privacy of people’s responses. You’ll see the results and be able to discuss how to implement the recommended communication solutions with your staff.  

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

Step #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

My husband Jeffrey has finally submitted his paper on the “leadership of change” to an international academic journal. It has been in development for over 3 years and could alter the research approach to leadership. I hope it does – that research needs help!

Consider the way researchers evaluate the effectiveness of leadership: they do a survey. Think about that. Can we say whether someone’s leadership is effective based on the opinions of their colleagues? If we admire someone in a leadership position, or think s/he is a great person – does that mean they are a good leader? Aren’t we supposed to look at the results they produce?

Effectiveness, after all, is about producing effects, i.e., results. How about asking whether a “change leader” actually made the intended change happen? Maybe even look to see if the change was accomplished on time? And on budget, too.

Jeffrey’s paper identified three basic functions that together add up to good leadership: (1) structuring work; (2) maintaining group integration; and (3) adapting and innovating as needed. One important point he made is that those three things do not need to be done by a single individual. In other words, leadership can be a distributed phenomenon – a collection of people that together contribute to getting those three things right.

So, you might be good at setting up the structures for getting all the necessary tasks done, while Darryl in the next office is great at keeping the group working well together with good internal communication. And maybe the IT team on the third floor brings their expertise to watch the progress of the initiative and make sure that surprises are addressed in an appropriate and timely way. The three of us – two individuals and a group – make up a good leadership team.

Where do those opinion surveys fit in?  They can help us see how people think you are doing with organizing task assignments, or how Darryl is doing with group cohesion, or if the IT team is seeing all the places that need attention. Asking people what they think of the way things are going and whether they think the leaders are on top of things is useful to learn something about the culture and climate, and can also provide feedback to the leadership team on all three leadership functions.

Opinion surveys have a role to play, but not in determining the effectiveness of a leader or a group of leaders. Thinking highly of someone doesn’t mean they are effective. To know about that, we need objective measures of results and outcomes. Which means the goals have to be clear and the steps to accomplishment spelled out for all to see. And then we need to check on how things are going at regular intervals: are we behind schedule or over the budget this week? Effectiveness isn’t a personality thing. It’s about measures and status updates. Accountability starts at the top. So there.