Things are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?
It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.
Fear motivates immediacy
Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.
Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.
Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.
Leadership motivates coordinated action
Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.
Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.
It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.
Reconnect leadership at the top
The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.
Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.
You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.
Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.
Back to the business, decrease stress
Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.
If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”
Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).
Connect people to forward motivation
As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.
You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.
Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.
Why do companies fail to learn from their mistakes?
With so much riding on success, you would think that companies would be better at learning. Amazingly, it seems as if they fight tooth and nail against learning, often with disastrous results. The reasons, however, make a lot of sense. And once you understand the reasons, you just might be able to make a difference. If not, at least you can feel self-righteous when the insanity starts.
Few of us think much about learning when not in school or in a training environment. But learning doesn’t just happen; it takes reflection and thought. Reflection time used to be built into the world. It took three weeks for a head-office communication to arrive via Pony Express, allowing ample time to ponder and rethink decisions. Now we have overnight letters, junk mail, e-mail, voice mail, fax, cell phones, 30-second-delayed stock quotes, and the expectation that responding immediately is far more important than responding thoughtfully.
Organizations rarely build in time to do thoughtful learning, and when they do, that time is the first to go when emergencies beckon. When we built the original Quicken VISA card, we scheduled a learning debrief and documentation time. But long before the project’s end, other demands squeezed all the slack out of the schedule. The learning review was the first to go. If you don’t do it deliberately, learning won’t happen.
Implementing insights from a learning review is tough. Learning means behavior change. Organizationally, behavior change is daunting.
Think about what organizational change is: It’s changing structure and processes. At the very least, a lot of people must change how they work. Responsibilities, roles, and reporting relationships change. And that’s just in the easy case; learning that your phone system is the bottleneck in your customer service department may demand reworking physical plant and equipment in several locations. Getting the affected people together to coordinate can take weeks. Then new systems must be designed, built, and documented, and everyone must be taught how their jobs have changed. Then there’s still a learning curve for the new procedures. People get up to speed at the new ways of doing things, and only then has the business “learned.” And, oh yes, this all happens in spare time, because the normal workload is still present and has to be carried for the business to survive.
Part of changing the systems and structure is changing the people. A reorg can be done on paper in an afternoon. But changing just one person is hard, even when he or she understands the need for change (Yes, my doctor said to lower my intake of saturated fats, but those cookies at lunch yesterday were so good I just had to eat … six … of them). Ultimately, organizational learning is doomed to failure unless people can learn.
For starters, a lot of learning breaks down because it’s never communicated. Telling someone “Now you report to Sally and your department is no longer sales, it’s account relationships.” still leaves them to figure out how their day-to-day job has changed. They weren’t necessarily privy to the learning discussions, and can’t do anything meaningful without more information about the changes and the context.
Context answers the question “Why is this happening?” It’s especially important when motivating people. People like things to stay the same. But when we find out why the request was made, it suddenly makes sense. Without knowing the “Why?” most change just makes life difficult with no obvious payoff … thus, resistance.
Even if people understand the changes, they may not have the skills for the new job. When Microsoft learned that security matters to customers, Bill Gates proclaimed that all programmers would spend two months just fixing security problems. A great goal, to be sure, but the programmers had spent their careers building systems without regard to security. How can we expect them to suddenly develop the expertise to find—much less fix—any but the simplest security flaws?
And as with any change effort, Microsoft is starting with workers who uniformly lack the skills being developed. Over time, organizational priorities shape the work force. Security-conscious engineers never had a chance to develop their skills at Microsoft, so if they really cared they left years ago for companies more aligned with their style. Those who stayed are the ones who thrive in the “get it out the door and capture the market” mentality. So the change is starting with the employees least likely to intuit how the changes should happen.
Money can come to the rescue by training people. For a simple skill, it can be quick and easy. But training for large skills must be developed, delivered, and practiced. No matter how much we “thrive on chaos” and jump “into the vortex,” new habits take time to develop. Humans only change at a certain rate and we’ve never figured out how to speed that up. The world may change faster than ever, but people just don’t.
The ones who most need to change, however, are the managers. As the organization reshapes itself, resources will shift. That means money and people. Budgets will get slashed. Empires will topple. Even if everyone else is willing, one recalcitrant manager with the right budget authority can halt a learning effort in its tracks. Managers must let go and support the learning for it to happen. Being human, they can have as much difficulty changing their behavior as everyone else.
By now, I’ve probably convinced you that organizational learning is hopeless. But take heart: now that you know why learning is hard, you can deliberately make it easier.
Organizational learning isn’t easy. There’s no perfect solution. Despite the many reasons why learning is hard for individuals and even harder for organizations, it’s just a behavior that can become a habit. Develop the learning habit. Practice moving learning into individual action. Help people change and grow. Over time, the very forces that make change hard will come to your aid: those who don’t like learning will gradually leave, and you’ll attract a culture of people committed to learning. Even when an organization fights it, strong, dedicated action can at least produce pockets of smart business savvy.
Any ideas about how to capture lessons learned for a knowledge base—i.e. getting colleagues to NOT fear repercussions of admitting ‘mistakes’ and/or admitting what they did not know?
First, the Truth: most of us are afraid to admit mistakes or ignorance for good reason. Culturally, we don’t tolerate mistakes. Since first grade, we’ve been scolded, punished, given poor grades, passed over for promotion, ostracized, and belittled for our mistakes. 2003’s most popular TV series is “American Idol II.” The first several episodes were a countrywide mockery of talentless pop-star wannabes who at least had the courage to take a risk in front of 250 million people. Their reward? Public ridicule.
Sometimes we get the message that mistakes are OK. A well meaning, understanding person—usually from the Human Potential movement—says in a soft, caring voice, “It’s not a mistake, it’s a learning opportunity.” Two days later, the team member who didn’t make the mistake is promoted to team leader. It was a learning opportunity, all right. The learning was, “Don’t screw up, follow the rules, and we won’t punish you. You’ll take home your weekly paycheck, get your gold watch at retirement, and all will be well.”
Society’s message is, “Don’t admit mistakes or bad things will happen.” Before people will embrace their not-knowing, you have to make it safe, even desirable, to take risks.
The organization must support risk taking
Look first to your reward systems. Most organizations reward outcomes: sell the most, get promoted; meet your ship date, get a bonus; meet your earnings projections, get an analyst’s stamp of approval. The rewards come from reaching an outcome, no matter how it was reached. Imagine Laurie, a shoe salesperson for OutcomeCo. Laurie’s sales tactics work on just 1 percent of the customers. Fortunately, the territory is flush with that 1 percent, so meeting quarterly targets is a breeze. Laurie is motivated to milk the 1 percent, rather than take risks to capture the other 99 percent.
And why should Laurie take risks? Risk taking by its nature produces missed targets much of the time. The solution is to reward the learning process as well as the targets. Imagine LearningCo, where the bonus is based on helping the company move faster toward its goals by gathering useful information, developing better ways of doing things, or identifying what not to do again (mistakes). In LearningCo, Laurie is rewarded for capturing the 1 percent, but is also rewarded for noticing market trends, trying cool new sales tactics that don’t work—no doubt involving unicycles, French horns, and a powdered wig—and inventing cool new products that may someday take over the market.
People do what you pay them for, so pay them to learn. Add personal risk-taking plans to your yearly reviews. Ask, “Are you taking enough risks? How can I help you take more?” Applaud in public (and in private!) when someone fails at something wildly, audaciously new. Celebrate whoever has the wackiest new ideas. Otherwise, time spent thinking outside the box is also time spent thinking outside-the-bonus-structure. Given the choice between outside-the-box poverty and inside-the-BMW business-as-usual, don’t be surprised when people choose the BMW.
It’s hard to reward learning in an outcome-based culture; it takes real strength of conviction. Are you willing to pad your schedule with time for failures and experimentation? Will you step up to the plate and give a larger bonus to someone who learned and failed than to someone who reached an important outcome through sheer luck?
A software company rewarded their flagship product’s manager with a Hawaiian vacation when the product shipped. Since the flagship product accounted for 70 percent of the company’s revenue, the manager was given whatever budget and staff he requested to insure success. He had no need to learn; he could just commandeer more resources. Other managers—whose projects were cannibalized without notice for the flagship project—learned to streamline their development and ship on time with limited resources. Taken at face value, it sounds reasonable to reward the flagship manager more than the other managers, yet he contributed much less to the organization’s ongoing strength and capability. By not rewarding the other managers for their learning in a difficult situation, they eventually lost many of their good performers.
Support risk taking one-on-one
Once the organization structures support risk taking, support the behaviors one-on-one. When you see or hear someone pushing the edge of their thinking, step up and ask questions to push further. Brainstorm with them, and walk the example of encouraging people to push their (and the organization’s) edge. When someone has an idea that could lead to great learning, help her pursue it by giving her time and resources.
Also watch how others treat risk taking and mistakes. If you overhear someone making fun of someone else’s mistake or missed targets, ask them, “I wonder if the mistake was because they were trying something new?” Start exploring in conversation whether those present are taking enough risks. If you’re greeted with cynicism and incredulity, “If we did that, we’d just get fired and lose our bonuses,” celebrate! People are handing you their specific objections to risk taking. You can then ask simply, “What would have to happen for you to feel safe enough go out on a limb and try?”
Start learning reviews with facts
Even with one-on-one support for your people, it’s safest to structure project reviews as a review of facts. In fact, there’s no need to make a retrospective personal. Limit analysis to an examination of what did and didn’t happen. Keep personal responsibility out of it, and bring in personal commitment only when the team begins exploring the future. Once learning becomes commonplace, people will become comfortable owning their part in what happens.
At project reviews, the team will assume that its own behavior was flawless. The ubiquitous “they” was the source of all problems. “They” delivered materials late. “They” passed restrictive legislation. “They” didn’t provide the needed direction or focus. A team must get “they” out of its system before considering its own part in what happened.
Have everyone gather together facing a whiteboard (so it’s “us” vs. the whiteboard), and make a big list of everything that went wrong, no matter whose fault. List facts without judgment. If specific people are mentioned, remove the blame and just describe circumstances. “Bob handed in the report late” would become “Report handed in late.”
Then make a second list of all the good things that happened. Be specific. “We supported each other” is too vague. “We stayed late and took on each other’s work in order to meet a tight deadline” is just about right. At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a list of specific actions that can serve as a jumping-off point.
For each “bad” action, ask the team:
What choices could we have made to avoid the bad action?
What choices did we make that should have been avoided?
What misinterpretations of events, motivations, and actions did we make that led to the bad action?
What were the correct interpretations?
What do all these imply about what we should and shouldn’t do going forward?
For each “good” action, ask:
What did we do to cause this?
Is there anything we refrained from doing that allowed this to happen?
Did our interpretation of events, motivations, and actions help this action come to pass?
What do all these imply about what we should do and shouldn’t do going forward?
What you’re after is team learning. If Bob handed in a report three weeks late, the only question that mentions Bob is the question, “How can the team help Bob get the report done on time?” By discussing facts and framing the team’s involvement as one of future joint responsibility, you are shifting from a frame of “Who did what right/wrong?” to “What happened, and how can we help it happen better next time?”
Cultures—learning or not—become self-fulfilling prophecies. If your company has a conservative culture, it’s probably full of people who self-selected not to take risks and not to admit mistakes. Shifting that culture means addressing fears with substance: make sure your organization supports risk-taking in its rewards and performance measures. Model that support in your daily interactions. And even then, you’ll get the best learning when you carefully separate judgments from facts, and keep people engaged in finding solutions rather than rehashing blame. Our society does a great job of squelching learning instincts, but with patience, care, and precise communication, you can make it safe for a group to re-create a culture of learning and exploration.
I am a projects and operations manager at a multinational oil giant based in Cape Town, South Africa. I have seven people reporting to me. I am twenty-four years old and the youngest member of my team—the ages range from thirty to forty-three. What strategies/tactics can I use to gain genuine respect and trust of my direct reports? We have been working as a team for the past seven months.
As you’re finding out, positional authority is only vaguely useful for getting things done in an organization. The right job title will certainly get people to follow directions thanks to social psychology’s “obedience to authority” principle (see “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion”) but it won’t engage or align them unless they respect and trust you. Respect and trust don’t come from an organizational position; they come from building a strong relationship. Trust and respect are intertwined, but distinct; you can give respect without trusting, and you can trust without giving respect.
You’re six years younger than the youngest member of your team, so don’t count on gray hair or decades of industry experience to contribute to building respect. You’ll have to earn it from scratch.
Let’s build respect the old-fashioned way: by showing you’re really good at what you do. Being the youngest on your team, don’t even try to demonstrate the highest technical expertise. Even if you are the best technically, people won’t feel great about being out-performed at their own game by someone half their age. They will feel great, however, at having their own strengths magnified by someone who’s becoming a really good leader. Build respect by demonstrating excellence at leading.
Ask for help
First things first. Address what no one’s talking about: your age. People trust you when they believe you understand them. When you say what everyone is thinking but afraid to say, you’ll build trust rapidly. Done well, admitting when you’re in over your head can be the foundation for strong relationships. “I’m younger than the rest of the team, yet I’m the manager. We have a job to do as a group. I don’t have your industry experience, and I’m counting on you for our success. My job is doing what I can to help you create that success. If we all do our part, we’ll make a superb team.”
You’re laying the issue on the table and using it to frame a mutual working relationship. Yes, you’re young. And that’s just a fact. The team can either get over it, pull together, and get the work done, or they can turn it into a problem and stonewall. Either way, once you’ve had this conversation, you can talk about the choice they’ve made, rather than silently accepting their implicit reaction.
Now, start helping your team shine. If you make your team members successful as individuals and as a group, you’ll earn not only trust and respect, but also that most coveted leadership quality: loyalty.
Set a mission
Teams that shine use each person’s strengths to get the greatest results. But before you delve into strengths, you need a team mission to set the direction.
Make sure everyone knows and buys into the mission. The mission is why the group was formed in the first place. If you don’t have one, ask the group to help develop the exact wording based on the team’s original charter. Have them choose words that are meaningful and emotionally charged to them. What’s important is that the mission be more than just nice words. It will be how people know they’re doing the right thing. If your team will “develop processes that make existing production more effective” and everyone knows it, they know not to spend time brainstorming new product development. Since a mission is a definition of success, make sure it aligns with your boss’s idea of what success means for the team.
Missions and goals may be vague or may become obsolete over time. That’s fine. Notice when they aren’t adequate and fix them as needed. Just make sure everyone shares an understanding of the team’s current direction. Unless goals are clear, communicated, and agreed upon, you’ve already lost the battle.
A big part of your job is keeping people aware of the mission. Many new leaders assume that once the team knows what it’s supposed to do, all will be well. Nope. Daily work sucks people in and they gradually lose sight of the goal. Remind them often. Use the mission to introduce weekly status meetings, and ask the team to relate their status reports to the team’s larger objective.
Figuring out team dynamics
Once you have a common goal, you’re ready to enlist the team in crafting their working relationship. Take the time to understand each person’s unique strengths and blind spots. For each person, challenge the group to ask:
What are that person’s strengths?
How can that person’s strengths contribute to the group?
What support will that person need from the group to use his strengths most effectively and to compensate for weaker areas?
Include yourself in the discussion. You’ll be contributing direction, facilitation, and management. You’ve already said that your strengths don’t include decades of industry experience, so the team can expect you to bring them questions only experience can answer. Likewise, invite them to tell you when their experience contradicts your plans or decisions. With a roadmap of skills and needs, the team provides mutual support towards a common end.
Your job description as a leader is simple: Support your team in whatever they need to meet their goals. Your goal—telling the truth, framing the relationship as mutual support, setting direction, and aligning team members’ strengths—builds culture and working relationships. In the day-to-day, your team’s need for additional support will change. You’ll find yourself acquiring resources, scheduling projects, and shielding people from organizational politics. By occasionally asking, “How can I help you do your job better?” you’ll quickly learn how you can help your people succeed.
The more you demonstrate true commitment and honesty, the more people will trust you. The better you do your job, the more the team will respect you. You’re doing your job well by honestly addressing the status quo and having the group design working relationships that bring out their best. You may be the only manager in your team members’ careers who has taken this approach. They’ll respect and trust you for doing what it takes to make them successful, and won’t care for a moment that you’re twenty years their junior.
As the author of this column, I receive a number of questions each month on the topic of leadership. Manu asks how young men and women in India can be taught to think about leadership. A pharmacy director in the U.S. is having difficulty firing up a small number of workers who are not engaged in their work. Linda wants tips on being more decisive. An executive leading a crossfunctional team asks: “How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and focused on our goals when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?”
The answers to these questions begin with the very basics. What is the definition of leadership?
In my experience, “business leadership” is often associated with a CEO of a company who made a lot of money and got rich in the process. Yet when clients tell me their company needs leadership, impressive job titles and large salaries aren’t what they’re after.
We say, “So-and-so is a born leader.” No such thing. Leadership is a relationship between a person and a group plus the skills to guide the group to success. As with any relationship, success depends on both parties. One group’s stellar leader may fail utterly when leading another group. The lack of competent leadership is the number one complaint I hear from non-CEOs.
Rather than just study leaders (thousands of books on leadership cover that ground), I’ve asked hundreds of people who they follow and why. They say leadership is emotional; it’s about inspiration, motivation, and connection. Unlike management, it doesn’t lend itself to systems, structure, and traditional classroom teaching. What inspires people to follow is surprisingly consistent, and surprisingly simple. But be forewarned: Simple doesn’t mean easy!
Establishing the leadership relationship
Call it “vision,” or “mission,” but it all boils down to one thing: First and foremost, people look to leaders for direction. Only by knowing their organization’s direction can people apply themselves to achieve their goals. It needn’t be formally stated; the leader’s actions and decisions convey the direction to the company. The direction needs to pervade every decision and conversation within the company, and it’s the leader who makes that happen. Providing direction for others is a key to creating a leadership relationship.
Even with direction, people must trust a leader. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. People want the truth from their leaders. Outrage from Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Enron, and many other public scandals were fueled less by the events than by the accused parties’ cover-ups and lies. When Salomon Brothers covered up improper trading in an early-1990s scandal, it fueled the flight of a billion-dollars’ worth of customers as people lost trust in the organization. Warren Buffett rescued the company by using complete and total candor with Wall Street and regulators as a way of restoring trust. Far from being a disaster, telling the truth proved astonishingly effective in quickly restoring the company’s integrity, with a minimum of fines.
Leaders must have integrity, establishing clear values and living those values. One of my clients worked for a newly public company whose CEO urged employees to hold their shares to keep investor confidence high. He then sold several million-dollars’ worth of his own shares. He responded to his employees’ feelings of betrayal saying, “It was just a small percentage of my holdings.” But that didn’t matter! He contradicted himself by selling shares while exhorting his employees to hold theirs. It killed his leadership.
Interestingly, the key is having actions match values, more so than what those values are. If one leader values quality and another values speed-to-market, they will simply attract different people to their organizations. But in either case, they must live their values consistently.
Consistency is another vital leadership element. When a leader changes direction with the market fad-of-the-day, or when his or her values shift according to the latest public opinion polls, people stop following. People want dependable leaders who provide a touchstone in times of change. You may ask: In a world of constant change, don’t we need to shift and adapt? Of course. But you must choose a direction and values that stay stable even while adapting your tactics.
A software company once had a company vision, “We will produce the best ABC widget for DOS the world has every seen.” It was a great vision statement, until Windows squashed the company out of existence. The software maker’s vision was so narrow it couldn’t adapt to change. A mission of, “We will solve the ABC problem for computers worldwide” would have been flexible enough to keep the vision while adapting to technological evolution.
Lastly, followers need to feel connected to their leaders. Leaders almost always connect through shared values; that’s one reason followers leave when a leader doesn’t live his or her values. Helping people feel they are part of something much greater—giving them a personal vision—is another strong tactic. For instance a leader in the healthcare industry may say, “You’re not just joining our company, you’re becoming part of transforming the world of healthcare.” Recognizing and rewarding employee achievement helps cement the connection. On the other hand, taking credit for others’ work is a powerful connection destroyer.
I was surprised by this framework’s simplicity—direction, integrity, consistency, and connection. But its simplicity hides how difficult it is to pull off. It’s difficult because these qualities can’t be faked for long. Creating a direction is easy. Integrating it into every breath and decision is not. Choosing values is easy. Aligning behavior, decision making, policies, and organization around those values is not. Consistency is easy … until things don’t go quite as planned. And connection is easy until things get busy and instinct tells us to stop all this fluffy foolishness and just get down to work.
Building the organization
Direction, integrity, consistency, and connection create the leadership relationship. That’s a first step in building an organization, but it doesn’t address the issue of how leaders make their organizations successful. History is littered with great leaders who didn’t have a clue how to turn their leadership into an enduring business. Let me share some of the highlights:
Focus, focus, focus. Know what the organization should be doing and ruthlessly say “no” to anything that would be a distraction.
Play to individual strengths. Understand the abilities of everyone you hire and make sure their job plays to their strengths. Don’t spend too much time developing weak areas. If someone can go from good-to-great in their strength, that’s more valuable to the organization than taking someone from poor-to-acceptable. Build organizational competence by teaming up complementary skill sets. Ditto for yourself; know what you’re good at and can do well, and spend most of your time doing that.
Play to organizational strengths. Stick to what you’re good at as a company, and get very good at it. If you’re a great software company, opening a chain of high-end fashion clothing stores won’t build a strong organization.
You can train people for skills, but it’s much harder to hire attitude. Most companies hire for specific job history or resume keywords, which is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
Bring out the best in your people. Hire the best, give them a common direction, and let them do their job. You’ll have a much stronger organization than if you make yourself too important. Remember: Every time you hire someone who isn’t as smart as you, you lower the average IQ of the company.
Most of this column has concentrated on the “soft” skills. When it comes to leadership, I remember what the COO of a multibillion-dollar company once told me: “At the end of the day the financial and strategic issues are there but they are reducible largely by analytics…the people and process issues are not.” If your goal is to become a successful business leader, your route will be smoother if you spend some time working on relationship skills and “softer” aspects of leading. Because at its heart, leadership is nothing more and nothing less than inspiring others to follow your dream and doing what it takes to make possible their success.
I am leading a cross-functional team in a company initiative but the members on the team do not report to me. How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and stay focused on the goals established when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?
Déjà vu! My first project management job was the Quicken VISA Card. We were creating software to import credit card statements into financial software. The software had to be integrated with six different Intuit products. I had “dotted-line” relationships galore, but no one who actually reported to me. Much of my team had other primary projects, all with separate deadlines.
Leading a team in those circumstances is an ongoing negotiation between you and your team’s other priorities. You need to capture your team members’ share-of-mind, and keep them wanting to move the project forward. Unlike a direct supervisor, you don’t have the tool of authority to help. You’ll have to rely on relationships and persuasion.
Think of your job as helping your team members make your project a priority. You need to know enough about them and their competing commitments so you can work the joint project into their lives. Schedule a one-on-one meeting with each member. Find out what else they’re working on, how much time they can commit to the team, and what their big challenges are. Ask about challenges related to their other projects, and spend some time brainstorming ways that you can help them on those projects.
Don’t be afraid to confront the elephant in the room: “Our project isn’t your top priority, so how can we insure we make forward progress while helping you complete your other priorities?” Just asking the question signals that you care about their priorities. They’ll often care about yours in return.
Once you know their other goals, lend them resources. Intervene on their behalf. You heard right: Help them succeed at their competing commitments. The more they fulfill those commitments, the more time they’ll have left for you, and the more they’ll become committed to your project.
Is one of your team distracted by a national product launch, for which the logistics are screwed up? Help straighten out the logistics, even though it isn’t your job. You would love it if she made you a priority over their other commitments, so demonstrate you’re willing to make her the priority as well. Do something selfless for her. She’ll respond. It just might be the first time someone other than a direct supervisor tried to make her life easier.
Staying in mind
Once you’ve opened channels of communication, diligently maintain the relationship. As in many relationships, frequency trumps duration: People remember many brief encounters more than a single long one.
Have you ever attended a full-day project kick-off, followed by six months of silence from the project team? That’s called “getting off to a resounding thud.” When a project starts quietly but comes up daily in conversation, it infiltrates your thinking and becomes part of the culture. That’s what you’re after. You want your project ever-present in your team members’ minds.
But you want it to be present in a good way. Make sure each project-related contact leaves people feeling like it was a good use of time. That means finding excuses to interact that aren’t “status meetings.” Most people dislike status meetings. Personally, I despise them. For frequent-but-brief contacts, connect to provide value to your team members and use as little of their time as possible. Contact them with help, with direction they need, with resources, or with one-on-one requests for status. Remember: Your goal with these contacts is simple awareness.
In addition to awareness, a team for a large project may need to feel a team identity. Do that separately. I believe teamwork should happen naturally, not through off-sites and ropes courses. From your early meetings and ongoing relationship-building, you’ll understand the needs and strengths of your team members. Facilitate their working together, so they build respect for each other as part of getting the work done. Find opportunities for them to help each other and match them up at those times. “Hmm, Sandy, you need help with the bar graph tool? Did you know that Aaron was working on it just last week?” If team cohesion is a real issue, ask them if they would like formal team-building meetings. At all times, let them drive the process in a way that works given their other commitments.
Put your project in context
If people in your organization are generally committed to the goals of the overall organization, you can strengthen commitment to your project by helping them understand how the project fits into the company’s larger goals. For instance, if the company is branching out into new markets with your project, you can help the team understand that the project is strategically important, and not just busy work.
Similarly, if there is an executive whose organization spans both your project and your teams’ areas, you might want to ask the executive to talk at a team meeting, to reinforce how much the project matters to the organization.
Appealing to company goals is powerful in a healthy environment, but should be done with caution if morale is low. In some companies (often those with histories of layoffs or unfair treatment), people view the company and its success very cynically. Appealing to company goals won’t be motivating. In many companies, however, people feel loyalty to and care about the company. They’ll be motivated to help the business reach its goals.
There’s no perfect answer to managing a team with other commitments. But if you take the time to make it easy for your team members to contribute, keep your project top-of-mind, and help them understand how important it is, you’ll have the best chance of pulling together a team that can get the job done even amidst challenges and distractions.
Stever’s address in LEADING: LEAdership Development INitiative for Graduate students at MIT was well-received by the participants and they were infused with energy by his talk. He set the mood for our two-day workshop and was responsible in part for its success.
— Dilan Seneviratne, President, MIT Graduate Student Council