I get the question a lot. How can I be a successful leader if the people above me are, well, idiots? Or worse even, what if they are egotistical, unethical jerks? The good news is that you can still become the right leader for your team and those around you in spite of a boss handicap. The bad news is you will have to work a little harder and, at times, repair or prevent the damage done by people above you in the organizational food chain.
I was working with a leader not too long ago who was doing a great job leading a few members of her team, and struggling mightily with others. She was working hard to understand how some of her team members responded well to her, seemed motivated to do what she asked them, understood what she meant when she talked with them, and just connected with her better. What we learned as we went through the coaching process was not that these people were more capable, smarter, or had a better work ethic. They were simply more like her.
There are two ways to increase the leadership capability in a business. Build it by developing people from within the organization into leaders who can take the business forward, or buy it by recruiting established leaders from other businesses. Both can have advantages and drawbacks. What is important is that you select your leadership strategy on purpose, not have it decided for you because you didn’t prepare well.
Who is your next superstar employee? If you can’t answer that question you probably have a recruiting mindset that says, “we recruit and hire to fill openings.” This is the thought process most businesses have, especially most smaller businesses. Finding great employees with a deadline looming and an overworked team clamoring for a warm body can lead to mistakes and high turnover. A proactive recruiting process that is focused on finding superstars, no matter what your staffing situation, helps you maintain a strong talent pipeline. It actually reduces recruiting and hiring time and allows you to avoid the chaos that can happen when a key player leaves. Here are some things to think about as you look to ensure your talent is always ready to take your business to the next level.
One of the most telling things I hear when working with employees in an organization is “that’s not my job”. It’s one of the sentences that drives managers completely nuts and screams “I don’t care about the business, I’m just here for the paycheck”. Often though, as managers, we train people to think that way and then reward them for doing it. Not on purpose of course, but certainly in the language we use from day one in our relationship with employees. Even in the interview process we focus on the job description or job duties, the skills that they need for tasks and the performance measures. What if we focused on a different conversation as we talked to both prospective employees and current ones? Here's some of the conversations that need to happen if we want our people to think about their job differently.
I visited a Starbucks the other day. It's not something I do a lot but I was on my way to work with a client and thought I would grab a cup of coffee for my ride. I chose to use the drive through window and as I pulled up to pay for my coffee the young lady working the drive through told me that there was no charge, the person in front of me had paid for my coffee already. What?? I was stunned for a moment as I tried to comprehend this. I would never be able to thank the person in front of me I had never even met the person in front of me and yet they had bought my coffee. What was really interesting to me was that they knew when they did it they would never be thanked and that the favor would in all likelihood never be returned, at least by me. I immediately thought this was an amazingly genuine gesture and I wanted to be part of it, so I paid for the person behind me. The young lady at the window smiled and said "that's three in a row, pretty cool".
When I was back in college and thought I was smart enough to become an engineer, I remember learning all about vectors in physics class. A vector in a diagram is an arrow that represents direction and force. As I work with organizations to help them manage change, the same concept comes into play. When a business is trying to become something different, better or more effective, the leaders in the business must manage all of the different forces that are affecting the change to ensure that they are all exerting force in the same direction. In most cases, organizations concentrate on one or two vectors and the remaining vectors are actually pushing back against the change they are trying to initiate.
The question I ask most when I’m working with leaders and managers is “why”. Managers will say things about their employees like “they just don’t care about the results like I do” and I typically ask…why? I don’t do it to be contentious or even because I want the answer. The whole point of the question is that if leaders are working on a symptom rather than the disease they won’t be successful at making things better. Most of the time, managers can’t answer the question because they’ve never thought about why. Or even worse, they have made up their own answer without actually taking the time to find out the truth. That’s when I get comments like “I just think that’s his personality” or “Some people just don’t get it”. What these comments say is that the leader hasn’t taken the time to find out why the individual is operating the way he or she is, and so they made up their own answer, typically one that screams “it’s not my fault this person is all screwed up and there’s nothing I can do to change it.” This is often much easier than figuring out the truth and helping the person achieve more of his or her potential by removing the roadblock. However, this path changes absolutely nothing and renders the manager completely ineffective.
I’ve had the opportunity to build leadership development programs for many different kinds of organizations and occasionally I get asked about the most important things that a leadership development program should focus on in order to get results. Many programs feel good to the organization, because they are doing something for their leaders, but they may not drive results. There are some concepts that I have found are part of the most successful programs.
I read a story about Best Buy in the Wall Street Journal recently and it seems that interim CEO Mike Mikan is ready to reinvent the business and make it "more relevant, more intelligent and more nimble". It will be interesting to watch this play out and see if they can adapt their big box format to escape what a friend of mine calls their "showroom for the internet" perception. One of the specifics that Mikan mentioned in the article was "worker training to deepen customer relationships". I hope that Best Buy is thinking past training that simply tells their people what to do and is focused on efforts that change the sales culture and actually influence how their salespeople think about customers.