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Managing Execs Who Didn’t Get the Promotion

QuestionThe managing director heads an organization with three vice presidents under him. For the last two years the company has been run this way and has been successful in turning around.

With reorganization on the agenda, it is proposed that one of the vice presidents be appointed as the CEO. This has led to resentment among the other team members. The fallout has been demotivation horizontally and vertically. What could be a “win-win” solution for this issue?

AnswerEgo, ego—who’s got the ego? Power, control, ego, and pride seem to account for the lion’s share of business behavior. Emotions at the top are propagated throughout the ranks; problems below may simply reflect problems at the top. So let’s start at the top in fixing the situation.

It sounds like what you really want is a healthy company. A healthy company needs a healthy executive team, and we all know what that looks like: The CEO has the respect and cooperation of the team. The team works well together, with each member bringing their top strengths and competencies to their jobs.

You need to align your executives behind a common vision of what a healthy executive team is. Gather your quarrelsome veeps for a heart-to-heart behind closed doors. They need to clear the air and then align behind a team they can all fully support.

Make sure everyone understands the common goal

Your executives must agree on the goal that’s really before them: creating a leadership structure that lets the turnaround continue and flourish. They’ll be tempted to include a goal like, “reach an accommodation where we three get what we want.” While that’s win-win for the individuals involved, it neglects the fourth player: the greater life form known as The Company. The company’s health affects everyone else working there. Keeping the company well fed and happy is more important than the personal whims of the vice presidents.

In the book Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins’s research shows that business leaders build the greatest companies when they put company interests ahead of personal interests. If each VP defines winning as “I get to be CEO,” then win-win is impossible. But since your VPs are surely great CEO material, they all know that a healthy company is the goal, not personal status and power. So make sure they abandon the goal of win-win and instead shoot for healthy leadership structure.

Your executives should keep one thing in mind: If the CEO slot hasn’t actually been awarded yet, their behavior now is part of their audition. If they’re tanking company morale because it looks like they won’t get the job, they’re demonstrating their unfitness for the position.

Introduce the brutal truth

The brutal truth, part one: When three people vie for the top spot, two won’t get it. Period.

The brutal truth, part two: The execs must work as a team and support each other. If they won’t, some of them will have to go—and it won’t be the CEO. All three were happy being VPs when they joined; it’s their elevation of one to CEO that’s causing the problem. The passed-over execs need to find a way to support the new corporate structure or leave. There’s no place in an executive suite for members who won’t do their job.
(Oh, yes… If they leave, don’t give them severance! By punting on the hard work of forging a strong team, they’re not earning their salary, much less anything more. You don’t want to send the message that divisiveness is a great way to collect a golden parachute.)

If they decide they want to stay and forge a strong team, it’s time to help them redesign their attitude.

Clear the air of emotional crud

Your executives may spend their time posturing rather than facing the tough emotions that underlie the situation. They need to confront and resolve the real emotional issues in order for the team to function.

Sometimes, just the chance to voice disappointment is enough. Emotions are often most troublesome when they don’t get to run their course. We may consider some emotions (discouragement, worthlessness) so mortifying that we never learn to acknowledge and move past them. But blocking an emotion before listening to it rarely lets us move on gracefully.

Ask your execs to use their feelings to get to their underlying motivations. This can get into sensitive stuff, so they can do this privately and just bring the result to the meeting. Have them recognize and acknowledge their feelings about the situation. Then have them ask, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” They can follow this thread to find the real issue underlying the bad morale. That issue can then be brought to the group for discussion.

Emotional rescue

This section is based on my experience with emotions, not on any therapeutic or counseling models. I’m assuming your morale problems come from “everyday” emotional reactions. Severe emotional issues may require therapy. Here are some examples on how I might respond to these emotions.

I feel jealous. Jealousy means someone else has something that you want. Wallow in it for a few minutes, and then realize that someone else’s good fortune isn’t your misfortune. Behind jealousy is “I’m not getting what I deserve.” Sadly, that might be true. Welcome to reality—life isn’t fair. Maybe you deserved the CEO spot, maybe not. Either way, jealousy isn’t healthy for you or the team. You were happy as a VP before. Be happy now. If you can’t, consider therapy or coaching. The issue for the group: how to make sure that each person feels he or she is getting the rewards he or she deserves.

I feel betrayed. Betrayal means someone didn’t fulfill a promise. Who promised what? Be precise. If the board promised you’d be CEO and they didn’t follow through, you may have a legitimate complaint. If a board member mentioned you were in the running, you may have read a promise into that. Talk through the promise and subsequent events with your alleged betrayer and clear the air. Often, however, betrayal is a neat smokescreen for emotions like discouragement or worthlessness, which may be more awkward to confront.

I feel discouraged/small/worthless. Feeling discouraged means you aren’t getting results, and you’re internalizing the cause. Does being passed over for CEO mean you’ve hit your competence limit? Not at all! Promotions are only vaguely related to competence, even in the best of times. We’re raised to believe that every little thing that does (or doesn’t) happen to us directly reflects our ability as human beings. The real world is more complex and usually a lot more arbitrary. If three equal candidates compete for one job, two must be passed over. It’s not about competence; it’s about only having one job opening. The issue for the group: how to identify the executives’ competencies and meld them into their jobs.

I feel contempt. Contempt comes from believing that someone is incompetent in an area you’re super-competent. If you think the new CEO is an incompetent boob, you won’t buy in to the direction, strategy, or tactics he or she is setting. It’s time for persuasion! The issue for the group: Make sure the strategy reflects the entire team’s expertise and buy-in. Spend some time airing doubts, questions, and concerns. Create something that you can believe in. If you can’t, though, it’s time for separation. An executive’s job is to help a company succeed. While the current CEO’s plans may not guarantee success, executive friction, in-fighting, and sabotage will virtually guarantee failure.

I feel hopeless. Hopelessness just means you’ve stopped anticipating future success. So start now! Create a rich image for yourself of how you can make your current position a job that really lets you shine. The issue for the group is how to make that happen.

I feel anger. Anger means you feel threatened. It often comes from fear: fear of survival, of being unworthy, of loss, etc. Dig around for the underlying fear. You can handle some fears on your own. If you feel your survival is threatened, a little financial planning may make it obvious that a $200,000 salary is a tad above the poverty line. Some fears can be brought to the group. If you fear you’ll lose respect because you weren’t promoted, the issue for the group would be: How can you be sure you are still portrayed and treated respectfully?

I want more money, status, and control. Who doesn’t? If you can’t marry into it and didn’t get this promotion, stop griping and start building. Complete the turnaround and help grow the business. Growth brings more money, status, and control automatically. If that’s not enough, reopen compensation negotiations. If you’re only in it for the cash, it’s worth rethinking the fit between you and the company. The past few years have given us dozens of examples where executives who care only about the dollars can kill the business faster than any competitor.

Create a team they can align behind

Once level heads have prevailed, everyone has to ask the hard questions: Can I support the new CEO’s plans and strategies, and can I commit wholeheartedly to my current position as I do so?

If anyone answers “no,” it’s time to start negotiating graceful exits. At the end of the day, an executive who can’t get behind the company must be traded in for a better model. They’ll make decisions for their own best interests, and not for the business’s long-term benefit. “It’s all about me” behavior can be fine at manager or director levels but, especially during troubled times, it can tear your company apart at the leadership level.

Your situation is a tough one. The vertical morale problems will probably be OK once the top levels get sorted out. But this is a case where it’s not about what’s rational; it’s all about emotion. The top team has to settle its issues and back the CEO to heal any rifts in the company. The CEO has been chosen. Strong emotions are natural, but the solution is to use them to identify issues that can be addressed, and then move on. Whining changes nothing, and certainly doesn’t build a healthy company. It’s time for the team to buy in or say “bye-bye.”

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Is Belief Crucial To Success?

QuestionDo I have to believe in what I am doing in order to be successful at it?

AnswerThe power of belief is the stuff of legend. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West to build enough belief so the magic ruby slippers will send her home. But in real life, belief involves both more and less than Dorothy endured. Depending on what you’re doing, belief may be optional. But even then, belief makes life much easier. And if you’re leading an organization, belief is one of your most powerful tools.

When you believe, it comes out in your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Even great liars can’t fake it for very long; they always give it away somehow. Poker players call this a “tell.” It’s how you know someone’s bluffing. They may shift in their seat, play with their ring, or otherwise reveal a lack of sincerity.

You’ve seen it in personal life. When my significant other invites me to the ballet, I say, “yes” in the interest of domestic harmony. But the insincerity of that “yes” is loud and clear. When we go out to an event we’ll both enjoy, though, we both know it, and it strengthens the relationship.

It’s the same in business. When people don’t believe, their relationships fade a bit. A mid-size company had employees who had only contempt for the CEO and his business practices. Watching them give job interviews was a hoot. Candidates asked, “How do you like it here?” They replied, forced through a fake smile, “It’s a great place to work. I love it so much.” They gave conflicting signals, and the interviewees knew something wasn’t right.

Usually, other people notice the lack of belief but don’t consciously know how to interpret it. They may think you don’t trust them, or you’re distracted, or the deal at hand is a fraud, or that you’re just distant. But however you slice it, they won’t feel a strong connection, because you’ll be holding back.

If success demands good relationships with customers, vendors, and employees, a lack of belief can be a problem.

Belief brings commitment and persistence
Is there anything you love so much you’d do it every day and enjoy it every time? I’ll bet it’s something you believe in. When we believe in a vision, we have the energy to keep pursuing it. We do what it takes to help bring the vision to life.

If your company is treading water, creativity and persistence may be optional, but for growing companies and companies in competitive environments, innovation and problem solving are keys to success. When you believe in a possibility of achieving something, you’ll bring your full creativity to bear and will pursue it relentlessly. When things go wrong, you’ll be out in front with new ideas, schemes to hatch, plans to make, and alternatives to pursue.

A nonprofit’s board met for a day to brainstorm strategy. Their organization wasn’t doing as well as they wanted, and they needed some serious survival plans. People sat around coming up with a vague thought here and there, but the conversation went nowhere. Finally, a member spoke up: “I just don’t believe in the goals we’ve chosen.” After lively discussion, the group chose new goals that everyone believed in. And suddenly, there weren’t enough flip charts to hold all the new ideas.

When you doubt the organization or its goals, it’s an ongoing struggle to stay motivated. You think, “This must get done, even though I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, or a worthwhile thing to do.” Naturally, you’ll disengage and just go through the motions—what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Much of your energy goes to fighting the tension between “must do” and “don’t believe” instead of going directly to finish the task.

When you’re completely aligned, you’ll be at your best, body and soul. If it ends up that you don’t reach the goal, it won’t be for lack of trying!

Belief impacts morale—especially for leaders
The biggest issue with belief is morale. Most of us just aren’t very happy when doing something we don’t believe in. We might resign ourselves to it, but futile resignation isn’t exactly a fun place to live day by day. Furthermore, it’s probably not going to bring out your best.

Psychologist Marty Seligman relates in his book Authentic Happiness (Simon & Schuster 2002) that we’re happiest when using our personal strengths to overcome challenges, all while doing something we believe makes a difference. Did you catch that last part? People are happiest in a job they find worthwhile. In fact, people often work harder for fewer rewards for causes linked to deep belief.

If you’re in a leadership position, it isn’t just your morale that will tank; everyone who works for you will feel it, too. A leader whose heart isn’t in it is deadly to a group. Even the group members who want to commit will feel like they’re committing to a phony cause.

People watch leaders to know how to behave. They don’t listen to their leaders; they watch. If you’re listless, if you’re holding back, if you’re putting in 50 percent effort, they’ll know, even if you don’t. Your behavior will signal everyone around you to disengage.

In coaching, this comes up over and over. An executive wonders why their team isn’t performing. I’ll ask, “What would a high-performing team look like?” They’ll tell me, showing all the enthusiasm of a slug on a salt lick. When I point out the discrepancy, we suddenly recognize that the team is performing—exactly to the belief level of the executive. Change the executive and the team changes as well.

After all, if you don’t believe, how will you be able to recruit and lead a team who does?

Sometimes, you don’t need belief to succeed
So sometimes, believing is critical to success. But plenty of jobs don’t depend on forming deep relationships, working with commitment and creativity, or leading people. If you’re in a transaction-oriented environment, belief is probably optional. And let’s face it; front-line retail jobs rarely require belief. Those jobs have massive turnover, and no one expects spiritual engagement from a fast-food checkout person.

But I’ve been talking only about belief, when you also asked about success.

Many people think success means making a lot of money, getting a lot of status, and having a lot of power. It turns out they’re wrong. Studies on success show that above subsistence level, more external “stuff” doesn’t mean more happiness. People who feel unsuccessful keep finding new ways to feel that way on different playing fields. “I don’t have the money for a new TV” becomes “I’m not getting a high-enough return on my investments.”

The people who really feel successful get their success as much from the process as the end results. Yes, they may want money, power, and status. But they get it in ways they enjoy, so they feel successful all along the way. Really thoughtful people use a “balanced scorecard” approach, and consider friendships, community, family, and, yes, doing something they believe in as essential ingredients in a good life.

Warren Buffett, history’s most successful investor, says he invests because he loves it. Even as a kid, he counted vending machine bottle caps to understand what was selling. His love led to persistence, skill, and finally, billions. He lives a modest lifestyle with his wife in the house they bought forty years ago. His joy comes from living, not having. He could have power, status, and huge skyscrapers bearing his name. But he wouldn’t enjoy that. For him, success is eating at McDonald’s and drinking Cherry Coke—well within the means of us non-billionaires. And, of course, investing, which he’d be doing it even if it didn’t pay.

So can you make money without believing in what you’re doing? Sure. In relationships, creativity, and culture building, belief helps. But either way, only you can answer the real question: Do you need belief to feel successful? And if the answer is “yes,” what are you waiting for?

© Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Why Diversity Is an Opportunity

QuestionHow should we think about the importance of diversity, and how best to understand and value cultural differences?

AnswerDiversity, the misunderstood child of the Age of Aquarius and Political Correctness, is an incredibly powerful tool for an organization. Diversity brings thoughts, feelings, and cultural knowledge that benefits decision making, marketing, operations, culture-building, hiring, firing—just about everything a business does. But its true power comes out only when diversity starts at the top and pervades the business. Alas, most businesses score dismally when it comes to understanding and using difference.

In my experience, many diversity programs are really anti-harassment programs. Someone says something offensive about a different race, gender, religion, geographic origin, or sexual orientation. The diversity police jump in and mandate “diversity training.” It’s a good thing they jump in—inaction sends the wrong message and can bring big lawsuits—but the motivation and the training many times boils down to, “Don’t say these things because people get upset.” In really enlightened companies, diversity training happens before it’s needed, so that first incident can be avoided, too.

Don’t get me wrong; diversity training can produce some effect. The true bigots who don’t intend to change at least know now which conversations to save for behind closed doors. People who are ignorant but care will be able to change a bit. But don’t expect much benefit beyond a decline in harassment.

What is diversity?

Diversity takes many forms. We mostly notice and legislate the visible stuff: people have different skin color, talk with different accents, wear different clothes, have different (dis)abilities, are different ages, have same-sex partners, practice different religions, and use different hands when they write. Most discrimination targets the visible stuff, and many anti-harassment programs help people understand that despite surface differences, deep down all people are worthwhile and valuable.

Surface diversity is what we deal with when we wish to avoid problems. We teach people to value the person within. But it’s the diversity within that brings great benefits. Inner diversity includes the Psych 101 stuff—different personality and work styles, brain dominance, etc. More subtly, it includes different thinking styles and different fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.

It’s easy to assume outer diversity signals inner diversity and vice versa. Not necessarily. A professor once remarked within my earshot, “Never again will most of these students be somewhere with such diversity of race and geographic origin. And never again will they be somewhere with such uniformity of thought and attitude.”

Inner diversity gives the biggest bang for your buck. Personality and behavior style profiles are widely used to help groups identify and talk about inner differences. Not only can the distinctions help explain why people clash, but used in team building, they can help you balance the skills needed to finish a project. For example, one profile distinguishes “people people” from those who are task and process oriented. If you were designing a customer service call center, you would involve both profile types so your systems are efficient but also give a good interpersonal experience.

Profiles can also help match people with jobs. Using profiles, some companies discover all top performers share common attributes. With that knowledge, they can do a better job matching. If Myers-Briggs ESTJs make the best salespeople for your organization, your chronically dissatisfied engineer whose profile is ESTJ may become a huge resource if given a chance in sales.

Cultural differences and deep learning

Though personality diversity is valuable for team building and job matching, even different personalities from the same culture will share a common set of cultural assumptions. The invisible diversities of culture, religion, and value systems are where you can reap real business benefit.

Cultural differences are where you discover the most basic assumptions that you’ve never even questioned. This causes problems; questioning deep assumptions can feel very threatening. So threatening, in fact, that reactions are defensive bordering on violent. But if you can manage the emotion and create a safe space to play “what if,” you may find your thinking changes dramatically.

A reader wrote in last month, “Americans work 50 percent more per week than people in my country and take four weeks fewer vacation, yet they don’t get more done than we did in my country.” America has cultural assumptions about working a lot and measuring it by face time. A foreigner can point out that there’s another way. An American company that listens and learns might be able to offer six weeks of vacation and short hours to attract outstanding employees. (And I know of at least one company that has done this.)

The Dalai Lama points out in his book The Art of Happiness that Eastern cultures believe in reincarnation. As such, they approach even daily tasks very differently. So I tried it (believing, that is, not reincarnating). Believing in future lives removes a lot of my daily stress in this one and also gives me a much longer-term time horizon. Suddenly, consuming my grandchildren’s oil seems like a bigger deal, because those grandchildren might be me, reincarnated!

A company that explores a reincarnation belief might end up taking a long-term view on their products. Seventh Generation does just that. They produce environmentally friendly household products. Their cultural source isn’t reincarnation, however. The name refers to the Iroquois Confederacy practice of considering consequences seven generations out.

Cultural differences can hint at new markets. Gloria Estefan recognized that the American music business is highly English-centric and has built her own business empire in America’s Latin and Spanish-speaking populations—populations almost invisible in mainstream media. The wildly popular reality TV show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” has helped the mainstream world enjoy “gay sensibility,” with USA Today reporting (March 3, 2004) that sales for products mentioned on the show soar as much as 300 percent.

Challenging an assumption doesn’t automatically point to opportunity, but it’s a start. A European colleague proposed hiring me to speak in his country. I asked, “Where should I stay? What are the good areas of town?” He was amused. “A very American question!” he proclaimed. “Have you ever considered a town might have only good areas?” Um, no. I never had. Even before our current fear-filled time, “bad areas of town” were a given. Knowing it’s possible prompts me to ask how to make it happen. Is there a business there? I don’t know. But an urban planning or civil engineering firm might find a few trips overseas could trigger some great ideas.

Some of the ways to extract diversity’s benefits:

  • Identify previously overlooked cultural markets.
  • Create new products for existing markets.
  • Change corporate culture to attract a different employee mix.
  • Form relationships and making inroads internationally.
  • Get things done in better ways.

“Comfy” diversity programs held for compliance reasons that skirt the real issues waste time and money. Your leadership challenge is to draw out the differences and help the group safely explore what those differences suggest about the business. You might find new opportunity, but either way, it’s simply the right thing to do in an increasingly diverse workforce. It helps people feel valued and more worthwhile, and at the end of the day, why do we even have business if not to have more worthwhile, valuable lives? That’s my underlying assumption, and if it isn’t yours, your first diversity assignment is to try it on for size.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Minimizing the Risks of Leadership

Question A leader can be brought down by a single follower’s actions. How can a leader reduce the risk?

Answer We dream great dreams and set goals so huge we need organizations to achieve them. Where people organize, leaders emerge. We want to be those leaders.

Leaders become the focus of an organization’s results. When things go right, leaders get the credit, glory, and money. Jack Welch receives the praise, but his accomplishments took 305,000 employees twenty years to produce.

When things go wrong, leaders can take the fall. The Middle East peace process is regularly derailed by disgruntled people largely acting alone, and it sets back the efforts—and eventually credibility—of the leaders by decades.

Good decisions minimize risk

One way to decrease downside risk is by helping your people make good decisions about what and what not to do. Sales programs teach that decisions are made with emotion. Logic is only used to justify the decision. So you’ll have to work with the emotions of your organization. (By the way, this is why I believe the current compliance fad won’t stem unethical business behavior. Compliance is about setting up and following rules. Rules are left-brain, logical thinking. Without addressing the underlying emotional drives, the pressure to win by any means possible will eventually resurface.)

People take emotional cues by watching their leaders. They don’t listen to speeches. They don’t read laminated wallet-cards espousing values. They learn how to act by watching you, especially when you’re off-balance and your guard is down.

So first off, give your own values a good spring cleaning. The last few years have shown us business leaders who have acted immorally, unethically, and sometimes illegally to succeed in business. If you set a bad example, people will follow, you’ll get into trouble, and frankly, you’ll deserve it.

Do you charge occasional personal expenses to the business? Do you develop a blind spot when your company violates a little regulation here or there? “After all,” you’ll say at your arraignment, “it’s no big deal. Everyone does it.” Beware! Your organization will be watching and magnifying the values you demonstrate. So clean up your act now. You don’t want John Grisham turning your story into a best-selling novel.

You want your company infused with clear, consistent values that people can use to make decisions. Johnson & Johnson’s credo clearly spells out J&J’s values: customer well-being, employee well-being, community well-being, and shareholder well-being. In that order. It’s so clear that every employee can use the credo to know when to act, and when to stop. Given the credo, J&J’s famous Tylenol recall makes complete sense.

Propagate values via stories

People learn values through stories. The way a story’s hero behaves tells listeners what values are Good. The Evil Villain demonstrates Bad Values.

Businesses develop myths that illustrate their values. Nordstrom’s devotion to their customer return policy shines in the story of an employee giving a customer a refund for returning tires, even though Nordstrom’s is a clothing store. A FedEx employee made good on the overnight promise by renting a helicopter in a storm to deliver a single package on time. These are the legends that convey the important values.

Telling stories isn’t enough. Watch for people who embody good, values-based decisions and give them public recognition. Celebrate not only their results, but the values they’ve shown while getting the results.

On the other side, come down quick and hard when someone knowingly crosses the line. If it’s bad, it’s a firing offense. And don’t reward the right outcome when it’s reached by doing the wrong thing. If a salesperson makes quota by lying to customers, don’t say, “Shame shame” and still pay their bonus. That’s a mixed message, and a mixed message sends no message. Your salesperson—and everyone else—will notice the bonus and ignore the shame. Only pay them for the sales they brought in ethically. If they quit, celebrate; that’s one unethical salesperson who won’t be landing you in jail. If they shape up, celebrate; you’ve made a difference. Either way, you’ve sent a powerful message that doing things right is important.

Discuss decisions to surface values

Of course, you’d rather just hire good people to begin with, people who act with integrity once they’re on board. You can’t just ask someone in a job interview what their values are and expect an accurate answer. Most people don’t know their values. But decisions are where values kick into action. So ask candidates open-ended questions about past decisions (recent past behavior predicts future behavior fairly well). Their answers will imply values. If they don’t have relevant past experience, hypothetical questions are next-best. “There’s a regulation that is keeping you from doing your job. Everyone knows the regulation is there for historical reasons only, breaking it won’t hurt anyone, and it will result in great profits for the firm. What do you do? How do you justify your decision to your manager?”

These are process questions; they ask for reflection on how things get done. Encourage regular process discussions. They get people used to thinking about what’s OK and what’s not. If business is fast-paced or requires big risks, openly questioning how business is happening make it more likely to bring outside-the-bounds schemes to light early.

Ignoring process and focusing solely on outcomes is dangerous. It’s one way to encourage deliberate tomfoolery. In reports of Enron’s collapse, Jeff Skilling never told employees to act unethically. He simply demanded extreme results and made it clear any behavior was acceptable to produce them. In the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the alleged command to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation turned into torture. A simple process comment could have avoided the scandals: “By the way, here’s a copy of the Geneva Convention. Stay within these bounds.”

Your goal is to get people feeling accountable for their own actions and making value-aligned judgments. Trader Nick Leeson brought down Barings Bank through ongoing fraud. In his book, he’s amazed that his bosses didn’t stop him. Yes, their oversight was shoddy. But their preparation was even worse. Those bosses never cultivated Leeson’s feeling of personal accountability for his actions. Even after serving prison time and writing his book, he was still looking to them to be his conscience.

You grow personal accountability by treating people as adults. Discuss their decisions frankly. Make them understand you’re counting on their good judgment. Give them authority, but only when you’re confident they can use it responsibly. If things go wrong, hold them accountable for recovery and learning from the mistakes. And beware of micro-management! Telling people every detail of how things must get done lets them run on automatic, rather than take responsibility for making the right choices.

If you haven’t the luxury of being sure of people before handing them the reins, try surprise “decision audits” from time to time. Drop by a project, ask about recent decisions, and discuss how those decisions were made. Don’t micro-manage, but simply take in information to understand how values are playing out. Have your managers hold similar audits, and as long as they’re taken seriously, you’ll build a culture that expresses your values.

Ultimately, that’s the best you can do. A leader will always be responsible for the sins of the followers. Alas, that’s the nature of the job. We can tell people the rules, but we minimize our risk through values as well as rules. By modeling clear values, discussing them, and incorporating them into the way decisions get made, we can make it much more likely our organization will do the right things.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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Titles Don't Make Leaders

QuestionAll of the talk about “leadership” often ignores the fact that leadership is powerful at any and all levels—and that you do not need to be heading up an organization to be an effective leader. Some of the most effective business people that I know are in roles that are not supervisory. But they can move teams and individuals better than some (most) managers—precisely because they know when it’s appropriate to lead and when it’s appropriate to follow. Many so-called “leaders” have not mastered this! How would you respond?


“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”—Anonymous

If you have ever been on a team with more than one self-styled leader, you have seen dysfunction at its finest. In-fighting, lack of agreement, sneakiness, and outright sabotage cause things to crash and burn. But is anyone surprised? If you’re a “leader” on a team, asking how you can lead or follow, you may have already failed. “Lead or follow” makes it sound like the two are mutually exclusive. Not so. The confusion comes because we don’t know what it means to lead.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It happens mainly when everyone is trying to tell everyone else what to do. That isn’t leading; that’s micromanaging, and it’s not part of the leader’s job.

A leader’s job is to ensure the success of the organization—no matter who reports to whom in any given group. At every moment she should be asking, “Is what I’m doing helping the group to succeed?” Sometimes we think we are helping, but we are just raising the group’s blood pressure with our behavior. You might even ask the group, in addition to yourself. If the answer is yes, you are doing the right thing; keep doing it. If the answer is no, stop! Decide you’ll start being part of the solution, and find a way to bring your basic leadership skills to the fore.

Setting the course

Your basic job is setting direction, not giving directions. If it’s your organization you are working with, by all means make sure to assert yourself in determining the highest-level goals of the group. But if you are in a group where it’s not your responsibility to set direction, then don’t. Only do it if the team has no charter and the team has not previously agreed on direction.

The group was presumably assembled for a reason—that’s the charter. Help remind the group why it exists, but don’t go changing its reason. If the basic charter must change, that’s the job of the group’s sponsor. Of course, in the extremely unlikely event you run across the group with no clear charter and no clear owner, consider it an invite for a land grab. Cram your direction down the team’s throat, and enlarge your empire just a bit more.

Ducks in a row

Another aspect of your job is aligning teams. Usually you align your own team, but nothing says you can’t spread the love when working with others. Once the goals are clear, help everyone match their part of the job. Offer your help to the group, but don’t force yourself on them. If you see someone screwing up big time, ask them questions to explore the link between their actions and their goals. Be humble! Ask with genuine curiosity, “Could you help me understand the link between the insanity you’re engaged in and what you believe to be the goal?”

Sometimes you’ll learn the insanity makes sense, and you’re wrong. They’re doing something you never thought of. Other times, you will find you must ask further questions to help them understand where their plans need shoring up. If they remain dead set on the wrong course, it’s your call: Let them learn or make a stink. In my experience, if someone is smart, it’s usually safest to give them the benefit of the doubt. They may surprise you. If you decide to battle, think carefully. Choose battles wisely, as they’re a poor use of time and, often, issues that seem earth-shattering now just aren’t in the long run.

Is this leading or following? You are certainly following the group charter. You are certainly helping group members figure out how to support the group. And as long as you are committed to the success of the group, you are leading. Even if you aren’t the one giving directions.

Support your mates

The other leadership skill you can bring to any group is support. Toss out the image of leader as someone in the 37th floor office, aloof from the teeming masses. When work is getting done, the leader is the least important team member. Your job is to make it easy for everyone else to get their jobs done. If that means taking out the trash and picking up low fat, low carb, organic pizza for the team so they can work straight through, then so be it. And you can really go the extra mile and (don’t faint) support a team even if it isn’t yours! If that’s what is needed to help the business succeed, go for it. It’s a much needed, often hyped, but rarely practiced virtue called teamwork.
Is taking out the trash leading or following? It doesn’t matter. It’s getting the job done.

So you like control. Get over it. When you’re in a team, don’t ask whether or not you’re leading it; ask whether or not you’re contributing to its success. Stop being dazzled by your own brilliance. Spend your time helping people know where they are going, link their actions to the goals, and support them as they get there. You’ll be perceived as a leader, regardless of title. The team will succeed, the business will succeed, and you can say, “I helped.”

“But wait,” you say, “how will I make sure I’m making a difference that matters if I’m just taking out the trash?” That’s the point. Sometimes, taking out the trash is the most powerful way to lead. Remember, two billion years from now, we’ll all be a frozen hunk of ice, so don’t sweat the small stuff, and fighting over leading a team is small stuff.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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The "Pull Leadership" Manifesto

Eighteen months after starting this column, business leadership still hasn’t reached perfection. Haven’t they been reading? Why is good leadership still so rare?

Maybe it’s because we use a whacked-out definition of leadership. “Leader” has become code for “rich guy with an impressive title who orders others around.” But leading by giving orders left and right with no accountability doesn’t work. We’re living in a world of low loyalty, high mobility, and extreme uncertainty. “Push” leadership will push people right out the door. We need leaders who inspire others to follow, who engender loyalty. We need leaders who practice “pull” leadership.

Pull leaders don’t give orders; they create social systems that inspire people to join

They do it using principles that many people in official leadership positions wouldn’t follow if their lives depended on it.

Pull leaders take responsibility for the success of their organization and their people

Responsibility isn’t given; it’s taken. The loss of faith in American business starting earlier this decade has been driven by a batch of CEOs who have chosen not to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, even when the responsibility was required by law. Pull leaders take responsibility voluntarily, even when it’s optional. You want to change how your company does business, but you’re too junior to have an effect? So what! A corporate trainer saw students struggle with the company’s product, so he wrote up the shortcomings, proposed solutions, and sent the CEO a weekly dispatch. He took responsibility for leading a product quality effort, despite being a twenty-three-year-old new hire.

Pull leaders believe that success of the organization is their responsibility, no matter what their job titles are. They don’t have to do all the work themselves, but they have to make it possible for everyone else to succeed. They lose sleep worrying if they’ve done enough for their people to be great in their jobs. They hope they’ve provided the right tools and training. They ask constantly how they can create a culture that helps others achieve.

Because organizational success isn’t enough for them, pull leaders also take responsibility for helping their people succeed as individuals. They learn enough to encourage and support each person reach their goals, even goals that aren’t necessarily about work. Think about it for a minute. If you dream of attending a Red Sox game in box seats and your boss arranges it as a holiday present, wouldn’t you be inclined to be more loyal than if your boss gave out the usual all-expenses-paid trip to the annual cow tipping contest?

Pull leaders work to become attractive to others

In taking responsibility, pull leaders realize their greatest tool is themselves. So they work hard at perfecting that tool! You’d think Michelle LaBrosse of Cheetah Learning would be relaxing on a tropical island after building a highly successful multimillion-dollar business in less than five years. Nope. She reads constantly, attends top-level executive education programs, and is constantly asking how she can get better. Her people love her and she has no problem finding employees.

Becoming attractive isn’t just a matter of reading up on business. Pull leaders work on their interpersonal skills. They get their own lives in order, knowing full well that if they aren’t successful in their own lives, they don’t have the emotional well to draw from to be there for their people. Much to my surprise, in one Harvard Business School panel discussion, several highly successful CEOs mentioned that they meditate for fifteen to twenty minutes a day. They also advocated being socially involved and giving back to the community. By working to become better people, they became better leaders as well.

Pull leaders align and inspire with values

Values are the second most powerful force for bringing people together to achieve great things. Pull leaders know their own values, and demonstrate them when they act. And I’m not talking about impressive balcony speeches on “quality” or “competitiveness” or “valuing people.” Politicians give those speeches and aren’t exactly at the top of most people’s most-respected list. What matters to pull leaders are their values in action. They examine their own actions honestly and without judgment, discover what values they embody, and either change their behavior or choose to stand for the values they already embody.

The Elements of Pull Leadership

The most powerful values message is sent when the pull leader is clearly taking a risk to stay true to his or her values. An engineer cared enough about quality to stand up in a department meeting and tell the development team that the decision to ship a low-quality product to meet a deadline was a betrayal of their commitment to quality. Risky? Sure. He could have gotten fired. But once word spread, he received great underground support as a steward of closely-held values.

Pull leaders are stewards of their organizations and employees

Stewardship is a key element of pull leaders. A steward is a caretaker of another’s property. A pull leader takes care of their organization and employees, without stepping over the line into behaving like the owner—even if they own 100 percent of the stock. Stewardship recognizes that organizations are created and maintained by everyone who works there. No matter who owns the stock, if everyone quits, there’s nothing left but an empty room.

In stewardship, a pull leader exhibits humility and appreciation for the organization they’ve started. Robert Cavett, founder of the several-thousand-person National Speakers Association, arrived at his annual conference banquet without his ticket. The new NSA member at the door refused him entrance. Rather than make a fuss with a melodramatic “Do you know who I am?” he returned to his room to get his ticket. His graceful handling of the situation turned the door guard into a lifelong devotee when she later found out (much to her horror) that she had turned away the organization’s founder.

Stewards don’t own the organization, nor do they own its results. Part of their humility is giving credit where credit is due: to the people in the organization who made success possible. You won’t find a pull leader trumpeting his own horn, but you will find him highlighting the hard work and dedication of his team.

Giving recognition is just one way pull leaders take care of their people. Did you catch that four-letter word? Yes, care. It’s a concept we don’t hear much about in business. Emotions are considered somehow undiscussable. Get over it, and start caring. Good stewards want people to succeed easily, not struggle. And they demonstrate their care however they can, maybe just with a birthday card or present. Maybe in much bigger ways. The head of a large nonprofit was also on the board of a local hospital. Employees needing medical care found themselves in a private room, receiving the best medical care available, and get well flowers by their bedside. He was a lousy leader in other areas, but people forgave his shortcomings and remained fiercely loyal when he showed he cared.

Pull leaders architect their social and organizational space

Pull leaders don’t just let space and culture happen. They actively shape the environment in which people act. The most obvious shaping is physical. They decide if an office will be all cubicles, all offices, or a mix of both. They choose whether to kept the walls a pleasant beige—a color that offends no one and everyone at the same time—or take a risk with artwork, edgy furniture, and exposed brickwork in a loft. They pay attention to whether the space promotes the kind of interaction people need to be successful. For engineers, it may mean large open areas for collaborative brainstorming. For personal financial planners, it may mean quiet offices where they can meet their clients in private. Internet bubble companies were famous for foosball tables in funky spaces that attracted the best and brightest employees available. The bubble burst, but the principle remains: space matters. It powerfully shapes culture, and pull leaders use it deliberately.

Actually, I’ve lied just a bit: Pull leaders shape the cultural space as well as the physical space. A critical part of culture is how decisions get made. If a pull leader truly believes in people, there’s no better way to show it than to let those people take the lead in shaping the organization. Let them design the environment, set space requirements, and create the work world that will best lead them to success.

This is where we find the fundamental paradox of pull leadership: People most want to follow leaders who don’t order them around, but rather give them the freedom and opportunity to be an active part in shaping their own lives.

Pull leadership isn’t easy

Not many leaders practice pull leadership because, at its heart, it’s about recognizing that the leader isn’t perfect, and that an organization’s power comes from everyone who comprises it. This flies in the face of America’s deepest cultural image: the Wild West pioneer, staking out uncharted territory and holding it single-handedly. But rugged individualism is nothing more than a romantic myth in a world as complex as ours. If you doubt it, try living with a broken water main or no power for a week.

We can still look to the pioneer for inspiration, however. The pioneer’s greatest quality is the courage to face the unknown—and that we still need in great measure. Developing pull leadership skills demands as much courage as that pioneer had, only this time the territory is mental. Develop the courage to admit you don’t have the answers; the courage to admit your success depends more on others than on what you can do yourself; the courage to trust them; the courage to stand for your values even when it means making unpopular decisions; and the courage to rely on attraction rather than giving orders.

None of this is easy. But it’s how the world works today, and the rewards of becoming a leader who can inspire will be well worth the journey.

Acknowledgements: My thinking about “pull leadership” has been shaped in part by the work of Peter Senge’s systems thinking; Peter Block’s Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest; and Jim Collins’s Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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The Leadership Attitude

Question Most people are not in official positions of leadership and yet we wish to do all we can to help the organization succeed. Bringing leadership skills to the table would benefit all. Since we aren’t responsible for setting the “vision” for the company, where do we fit in? Should we just be extensions of the real leader or is vision something beyond our concern? Should we just focus on issues at our level and perhaps one level above? I loved your example of the fellow who found fault with his company’s product and worked to change it, but I think where I’ve worked that kind of behavior would just get you fired. Is there something a bit more tamed down that you could offer?

AnswerYou caught me. Sure, you can lead from anywhere in an organization; it’s probably the most common way organizations are led. (Sadly, many CEOs aren’t perceived as leaders by their own organizations.) With command-and-control leadership, it’s all about giving orders, so you need the title. But in most companies, you can be a powerful leader anywhere in an organization by adapting the “pull leadership” principles of responsibility, stewardship, and values.

Pull leaders take responsibility for an organization and the people who make it up

The key to leadership at any level is writing a new job description: My job is making the company, and its people, successful.

Taking responsibility for success is first on your agenda. Don’t confuse responsibility with authority! Responsibility is totally different; it’s an attitude. Want proof? Just watch Ken Lay, who had absolute authority at Enron, abused it, and wholly declines to take responsibility. You can do better than that. Mentally, decide to start acting as a leader rather than waiting for permission or direction.

Believe it or not, this can be leadership’s greatest challenge. The CEO of a company where I was President said (yelled, actually) that I was acting too much like a consultant. After two days in denial, I admitted it was true and asked: “What would I do differently if I owned this company?” The answer flashed up in an instant: fire an incompetent staffer and build a “quick and dirty” system to move us forward. The attitude made all the difference.

Acquire the attitude by asking what you’d do if you were in charge. Imagine yourself in the corner office, writing out paychecks and company expenditures from your personal bank account. With an attitude of responsibility, you’ll be asking if you’re getting your money’s worth? Is the company working on the right projects? Is the culture functional? Just taking the attitude of “I can be responsible for the group’s success” will start to pervade your presence.

If you’re going to take responsibility for the organization, you must take responsibility for the people as well. This is super important if you’re leading from below. A CEO can grind people down and no one calls her on it. She can’t be fired. You can. But you won’t, if you’re taking responsibility for the success of the people, as well as the organization. Decide you’ll start looking out for your co-workers, your boss, and yourself.

Pull leaders are stewards for their organizations and people

Here’s where responsibility becomes action. Take care of your organization. Unlike a CEO or President, you can’t set company direction. But you can take the direction top management sets and make it your job to turn that direction into reality.

Start figuring out how your business works. Read business books. Talk to people from other functions in your spare time. Learn what they do and why. You’ll get a sense for how it needs to be nudged going forward. As the low person on the totem pole, start by making suggestions here and there and offering to help. Do a small project on your own time that benefits the company in a visible way. If people know you’re genuinely curious and concerned about helping things get better, they’ll be inclined to work with you. More importantly, they’ll start looking to you as someone who drives success.

Become steward of your group

Every team you’re on is a chance to be a steward. The teams have a charter or a goal they’re supposed to reach. You can’t set the goal, but you can make sure you understand it and then become the “go-to guy” for keeping things moving. If the team stalls, figure out why and offer to help the team leader restart it. Some people just attend to their own work, and they’re viewed (rightly) as good technical contributors who must be managed to be valuable.

Sample Values to Consider When Matching Yourself to Your Organization

A sales team was not making sales. The more time went by, the more sales weren’t happening. One member of the team finally interviewed everyone on the team and realized that half the team was stalled waiting for input from the other half, while the other half was stalled waiting for input from the first half! He got everyone in a room, had them exchange information, and three weeks later, calls were again being made and the pipeline was starting to fill.

If you attend to everyone’s work, and help the entire team be successful, you’re acting as a leader in a tangible way.

Become steward of your co-workers

It’s not enough to care about the group. Your co-workers’ success is important, even if you don’t like them! What are their hot buttons? What are their strengths? When do they best shine in their jobs? Once you know, start watching out for them. Do you hear of a project perfectly suited for a teammate’s career aspirations? Help them apply and become a champion for them. If they’re running into problems, show concern. Share ideas for how they can overcome their obstacles.

Keep people going by helping them make their job part of a larger success. After all, group goals only matter if they further the company’s overall goals. Keep the connection in mind, and help others “get” the connection. Even a janitor enables a company’s success by freeing people to work without the distraction of maintaining their space. There’s pride to be taken; help them take it!

When you help people find their pride and become more successful, they’ll start supporting you in return. Over time, you’ll find more people taking you seriously. You’ll have the support to make audacious suggestions, have people nod in agreement, and get the attention of the people who can make your ideas happen.

Remember that the boss and the boss’s boss are important co-workers! Know their motivations, hot buttons, and goals. Read your company’s annual report. Be able to talk their language. When your ideas start making it higher in the organization, you want them to be hearing their own success in your words. Without this groundwork, you risk triggering territory wars — not a pleasant prospect.

If you keep a strong link to the company’s success and the success of the people involved, you may find yourself with the authority to match your responsibility sooner than you think.

Lead by living the company’s values

You’ll succeed as a leader only if you’re a living example of your values. What causes do you champion? How do you behave with others? What decisions do you make? Now ask yourself what values your answers demonstrate. If those values don’t align with your organization, change yourself, change organizations, or tone down your leadership aspirations. Values, if clear and consistent in behavior, are a powerful glue that holds an organization together.

It may be tricky to identify your organization’s true values. Values are often unstated, and when they are discussed, the “espoused values” may not match how people really behave. The important values in the workplace often cluster around people, product, and organizational health. See the sidebar for sample values to consider when matching yourself to your organization.

Ethical values are the easiest to identify, make the most powerful statement, and carry the greatest risk. At Stanford Graduate School of Business last week, incoming MBAs were discussing their experiences with ethical issues on the job. Two of the group had taken major ethical stands at their companies as junior employees. One had championed workplace safety, while the other had asked her company to forgo investing in an ethically dubious company. Fortunately, both had been successful in their causes.

That isn’t always true. “Whistle-blowers” may get tremendous respect from our private selves, but they’re rarely appreciated by society at large or in the organization whose secrets they reveal. There’s a fine line between championing values by living them and stepping over the line and “betraying” your company. Oddly, people react more intensely to an employee “betraying” their company than a company betraying its employees (or society!). I don’t know when companies became more important to us, emotionally, than our people and communities, but that’s how we react.

You have to decide where your line is in stepping up with your values. Personally, I’ve taken several ethical stands in my career that haven’t won me brownie points with management. Those stands have, however, led me to be perceived as a powerful leader by the people around me. Was it worth it? Yes. I’m proud of the person I’ve become. But in terms of career growth at those companies? Well… I’m not working there any more.

Leadership isn’t about titles. It’s about behavior. If you live your values, take care of your organization and its people, and step up to the plate with responsibility, you’ll be a leader in the true sense of the word. Your title won’t matter. Your influence, the respect you garner, and the success you bring will be the true proof of your leadership.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload

Being at or near the the top of your organization, everyone wants a piece of you. So they send you e-mail. It makes you feel important. Don’t you love it? Really? Then, please take some of mine! Over 100 real e-mails come in each day. At three minutes apiece, it will take five hours just to read and respond. Let’s not even think about the messages that take six minutes of work to deal with. Shudder. I’m buried in e-mail and chances are, you’re not far behind. For whatever reason, everyone feels compelled to keep you “in the loop.”

Fortunately, being buried alive under electronic missives forced me to develop coping strategies. Let me share some of the nonobvious ones with you. Together, maybe we can start a revolution.

The problem is that readers now bear the burden

Before e-mail, senders shouldered the burden of mail. Writing, stamping, and mailing a letter was a lot of work. Plus, each new addressee meant more postage, so we thought hard about whom to send things to. (Is it worth spending thirty-two cents for Loren to read this letter? Nah….)

E-mail bludgeoned that system in no time. With free sending to an infinite number of people now a reality, every little thought and impulse becomes instant communication. Our most pathetic meanderings become deep thoughts that we happily blast to six dozen colleagues who surely can’t wait. On the receiving end, we collect these gems of wisdom from the dozens around us. The result: Inbox overload.

(“But my incoming e-mail is important,” you cry. Don’t fool yourself. Time how long you spend at your inbox. Multiply by your per-minute wage(*) to find out just how much money you spend on e-mail. If you can justify that expense, far out—you’re one of the lucky ones. But for many, incoming e-mail is a money suck. Bonus challenge: do this calculation companywide.)

(*) Divide your yearly salary by 120,000 to get your per-minute wage.

Taming e-mail means training the senders to put the burden of quality back on themselves.

How you can send better e-mail

What’s the best way to train everyone around you to better e-mail habits? You guessed it: You go first. First, you say, “In order for me to make you more productive, I’m going to adopt this new policy to lighten your load…” Demonstrate a policy for a month, and if people like it, ask them to start doing it too.

  • Use a subject line to summarize, not describe.

People scan their inbox by subject. Make your subject rich enough that your readers can decide whether it’s relevant. The best way to do this is to summarize your message in your subject.



Subject: Deadline discussion              

Subject: Recommend we ship product April 25th

  • Give your reader full context at the start of your message.

Too many messages forwarded to you start with an answer—”Yes! I agree. Apples are definitely the answer”—without offering context. We must read seven included messages, notice that we were copied, and try to figure out what apples are the answer to. Even worse, we don’t really know if we should care. Oops! We just noticed there are ten messages about apples. One of the others says “Apples are definitely not the answer.” And another says, “Didn’t you get my message about apples?” But which message was sent first? And which was in response to which? ARGH!

It’s very, very difficult to get to the core of the issue.

You’re probably sending e-mail because you’re deep in thought about something. Your reader is too, only they’re deep in thought about something else. Even worse, in a multi-person conversation, messages and replies may arrive out of order. And no, it doesn’t help to include the entire past conversation when you reply; it’s rude to force someone else to wade through ten screens of messages because you’re too lazy to give them context. So, start off your messages with enough context to orient your reader.



To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive

Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive.

You asked if we want apple pie. Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

  • When you copy lots of people (a heinous practice that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care.

Just because you send a message to six poor coworkers doesn’t mean all six know what to do when they get it. Ask yourself why you’re sending to each recipient, and let them know at the start of the message what they should do with it. Big surprise, this also forces you to consider why you’re including each person.



To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Web site design draft is done

The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Web site design draft is done

AG: DECISION NEEDED. Get marketing to approve the draft
BF: PLEASE VERIFY. Does the slogan capture our branding?
CR: FYI, if we need a redesign, your project will slip.
The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

  • Use separate messages rather than bcc (blind carbon copy).

If you bcc someone “just to be safe,” think again. Ask yourself what you want the “copied” person to know, and send a separate message if needed.Yes, it’s more work for you, but if we all do it, it’s less overload.



To: Fred
Bcc: Chris

Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.

To: Fred

Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.
To: Chris
Please reserve the conference room for me and Fred today at 2:00 p.m.

  • Make action requests clear.

If you want things to get done, say so. Clearly. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than getting copied on an e-mail and finding out three weeks later that someone expected you to pick up the project and run with it. Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.

  • Separate topics into separate e-mails … up to a point.

If someone sends a message addressing a dozen topics, some of which you can respond to now and some of which you can’t, send a dozen responses—one for each topic. That way, each thread can proceed unencumbered by the others.
Do this when mixing controversy with mundania. That way, the mundane topics can be taken care of quietly, while the flame wars can happen separately.



We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Speaking of which, I was thinking … do you think we should fire Sandy?

Message #1: We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Message #2: Sandy’s missed a lot of deadlines recently. Do you think termination is in order?

  • Combine separate points into one message.

Sometimes the problem is the opposite—sending 500 tiny messages a day will overload someone, even if the intent is to reduce this by creating separate threads. If you are holding a dozen open conversations with one person, the slowness of typing is probably substantial overhead. Jot down all your main points on a piece of (gasp) paper, pick up the phone, and call the person to discuss those points. I guarantee you’ll save a ton of time.

  • Edit forwarded messages.

For goodness sake, if someone sends you a message, don’t forward it along without editing it. Make it appropriate for the ultimate recipient and make sure it doesn’t get the original sender in trouble.



To: Bill

Sue’s idea, described below, is great.

From: Sue
Hey, Abner:
Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border. Bill probably won’t mind; his design sense is so garish he’ll approve anything.

To: Bill

Sue’s idea, described below, is great.

From: Sue
Hey, Abner:
Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border…

  • When scheduling a call or conference, include the topic in the invitation. It helps people prioritize and manage their calendar more effectively.



Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.

Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. to review demo presentation.

  • Make your e-mail one page or less.

Make sure the meat of your e-mail is visible in the preview pane of your recipient’s mailer. That means the first two paragraphs should have the meat. Many people never read past the first screen, and very few read past the third.

  • Understand how people prefer to be reached, and how quickly they respond.

Some people are so buried under e-mail that they can’t reply quickly. If something is important, use the phone or make a follow-up phone call. Do it politely; a delay may not be personal. It might be that someone’s overloaded. If you have time-sensitive information, don’t assume people have read the e-mail you sent three hours ago rescheduling the meeting that takes place in five minutes. Pick up the phone and call.

How to read and receive e-mail
Setting a good example only goes so far. You also have to train others explicitly. Explain to them that you’re putting some systems in place to help you manage your e-mail overload. Ask for their help, and know that they’re secretly envying your strength of character.

  • Check e-mail at defined times each day.

We hate telemarketers during dinner, so why do we tolerate e-mail when we’re trying to get something useful done? Turn off your e-mail “autocheck” and only check e-mail two or three times a day, by hand. Let people know that if they need to reach you instantly, e-mail isn’t the way. When it’s e-mail processing time, however, shut the office door, turn off the phone, and blast through the messages.

  • Use a paper “response list” to triage messages before you do any follow-up.

The solution to e-mail overload is pencil and paper? Who knew? Grab a legal pad and label it “Response list.” Run through your incoming e-mails. For each, note on the paper what you have to do or whom you have to call. Resist the temptation to respond immediately. If there’s important reference information in the e-mail, drag it to your Reference folder. Otherwise, delete it. Zip down your entire list of e-mails to generate your response list. Then, zip down your response list and actually do the follow-up.

  • Charge people for sending you messages.

One CEO I’ve worked with charges staff members five dollars from their budget for each e-mail she receives. Amazingly, her overload has gone down, the relevance of e-mails has gone up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in them solving more problems on their own.

  • Train people to be relevant.

If you are constantly copied on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren’t relevant with the single word: “Relevant?” Of course, you explain that this is a favor to them. Now, they can learn what is and isn’t relevant to you. Beforehand, tell them the goal is to calibrate relevance, not to criticize or put them down and encourage them to send you relevancy challenges as well. Pretty soon, you’ll be so well trained you’ll be positively productive!

  • Answer briefly.

When someone sends you a ten page missive, reply with three words. “Yup, great idea.” You’ll quickly train people not to expect huge answers from you, and you can then proceed to answer at your leisure in whatever format works best for you. If your e-mail volume starts getting very high, you’ll have no choice.

  • Send out delayed responses.

Type your response directly, but schedule it to be sent out in a few days. This works great for conversations that are nice but not terribly urgent. By inserting a delay in each go-around, you both get to breathe easier.
(In Outlook, choose Options when composing a message and select Do not deliver before. In Eudora, hold down the Shift key as you click Send.)

  • Ignore it.

Yes, ignore e-mail. If something’s important, you’ll hear about it again. Trust me. And people will gradually be trained to pick up the phone or drop by if they have something to say. After all, if it’s not important enough for them to tear their gaze away from the hypnotic world of Microsoft Windows, it’s certainly not important enough for you to take the time to read.

Your only solution is to take action

Yeah, yeah, you have a million reasons why these ideas can never work in your workplace. Hogwash. I use every one of them and can bring at least a semblance of order to my inbox. So choose a technique and start applying it. While you practice, I’ll be on vacation, accumulating a 2,000 message backlog for when I get home. If you want to know how well I cope, just send along an e-mail and ask….

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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The Keys to Building Trust

Which comes first: truth or transparency?

AnswerUh, oh. Is that politics in the air? I’m guessing you either want to trust someone else or you want them to trust you. Either way, transparency plays a powerful role. It’s just part of the Trust Equation, though. So let’s really dig into the nature of trust.

At its heart, being trustworthy means being consistent in motives and accountable for actions. If you trust me to listen attentively and hear your side of an issue, it means you’ll expect me to value your opinion when I act.

How is trust lost?

Losing trust is outrageously easy. Just let someone down once and kaboom, years of trust go down the drain. The CEO of a newly public company asked employees not to sell stock to keep the price stable. Then he turned around and sold more stock than all his employees owned put together. He lost trust, lost it big, and lost it permanently. He tried to recover, claiming (truthfully) he’d only sold a small fraction of his shares. But percentage ownership wasn’t the issue; he’d set up the expectation “we’ll all act together to keep the price strong” and then shattered that promise.

How is trust gained?

Trust isn’t subject to the whims of logic. Many people trust others from day one, with no real basis for that trust. (This is a good thing, by the way. It’s the basis of community!) We trust a new project manager to know how to balance resources, map out a plan, and monitor execution. When an employer hires us, we trust they’ll provide the salary, benefits, and job opportunity they offered. Trust starts out free.

Others need to see behavior before starting to form trust. Norton is JoAnne’s new boss. JoAnne has been the victim of management incompetence too many times. She has to see Norton champion his team’s ideas two or three times before trusting that he cares as much about his team’s success as his own. Some people need consistent proof for weeks, months, or years, and still others are never convinced—they demand proof every time they work with someone.

Businesses lose trust left and right

Remember, we build trust when behavior matches expectations. As humans, we might expect our organizations to take care of us. We might expect managers to be stewards of companies, and companies to be stewards of employees, customers, and communities. In reality, most companies and managers don’t behave that way. What do most businesses do consistently? Act for the shareholders. It’s the law. Sometimes they act for “productivity,” “growth,” “profit,” “the bottom line,” “share price,” “efficiency,” and lots of other measures that might not directly promote the well-being of employees, customers, communities, and suppliers. Then when paychecks are cut to bolster the quarterly financials, a move that helps the financial interests of shareholders, employees might be excused for losing a little trust in their employer’s stated position that “Our employees are our greatest assets!”

Trust can also take a hit when the CEO pulls into the corporate parking lot driving a car that costs more than most employees make in a decade, even as the company calls for cost controls and outsources jobs. Other trust-destroying business tactics:

  • Layoffs, especially when preceded by promises that “we’ll never have layoffs.” The nail in the coffin is when the executives receive bonuses that year.
  • Ignoring problems. When things are going wrong, it’s tempting not to tell people. After all, managers are supposed to support morale. It’s true, to some extent. But when everyone knows things are troubled, saying otherwise makes management seem either clueless or false. Both break trust.
  • Keeping people in the dark during uncertainty. “We’ll tell people when we know what’s happening” is the usual excuse. That’s nice. And while waiting for certainty, everyone around us is losing faith. The trustworthy approach is to admit and discuss the uncertainty. At least the words will match the actions.

Winning trust with honesty

Fortunately, you can win trust. And you put your finger on the best way: transparency. Transparency just means you tell the truth in a way that people can verify. Say what’s true and honest, then let people check it out for themselves. Did you make a mistake? Admit it and people will still trust you. Cover it up, especially when everyone knows you did it, and you’ll destroy any chance that people will believe your word is good.

A multimillion-dollar acquisition was minutes from closing when the lead negotiator upped his asking price by $10,000—a pittance—because he thought he had the other party over a barrel and wanted to prove his power. Surprise! The other side had an alternative offer he hadn’t known about, and the deal fell through. The negotiator steadfastly insisted it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t just destroy the deal; he destroyed his internal credibility by denying his part.

This works in the other direction, as well. Starbucks is pricey, and they claim the money filters all the way back to supporting the farmers who grow their coffee. By hiring independent auditors to follow the money through the supply chain, they open up to great scandal if their claims aren’t true. But if the money is going where they claim, the transparency builds that much more confidence.

So which comes first, trust or transparency? Even though some people trust by default, ultimately, transparency is needed for trust to endure. So why not start now? By telling the truth and giving people the means to know for themselves, you can build the foundation for a strong relationship when times get stormy. If you wait to be transparent until the trust is in place, you may wait a very long time.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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Defeating Overwhelm

My name is Stever Robbins, and I’m here to confess: I’m an overwhelm wimp.

Give me more than three things to handle at once and pop, my head explodes. It’s not just me—everyone seems to be suffering from daily overwhelm. At best, we flounder. At worst, we shut down entirely. You can’t be effective running ragged, living surgically connected to your cell phone, and cutting short every meeting because you’re way too on-the-run. If being the center of attention makes you feel important, go for it. Personally, I’d rather be sane.

I’ll warn you in advance: this article is about what’s good for you, not what’s good for business. How can you take care of yourself amidst the chaos?

Surviving in the moment

When overwhelm crashes down, your emergency rip cord is to physically take a break. Grab something to eat, walk around the block, and get away! Breathe deeply, with a long, slow exhale. And lean forward. I don’t know why, but leaning into overwhelm makes it less overwhelming.

Once you’ve calmed a bit, consider taking longer-term steps to recover your life. Overwhelm comes from too much, too fast. The solution is learning to say “no,” keeping firm boundaries, and going easy on yourself when you are not superman or woman.

If you choose sanity, step one is changing your thinking. Rather than worshipping productivity and efficiency, remember that there’s more to life than living it efficiently. There’s family, quality of life, joy, love, spirituality, and community, for starters.

Some of the following anti-overwhelm suggestions will be heretical. They’ll actually suggest that you reduce your productivity. After all, do you want to be highly productive, or do you want to have a life? You can’t do both.

The root problem is that our tools have become too good. We’ve made our lives so very efficient with our cell phones, PDAs, and e-mail. But does your Palm Pilot make you more efficient? If so, just wait. Expectations will expand to include your increased productivity. You’ll quietly lose your relaxation and recharge time, sacrificed to the Gods of efficiency.

Remind yourself on a regular basis that while a Blackberry tempts you with “efficient” e-mail handling, resist! It slowly infiltrates your life, demanding you to respond to e-mail at any time of day or night. Take it on faith that labor-savings devices demand that you labor more.

“But,” you cry, “I can multitask, getting more done quickly!” Multitasking is a myth. At least, quality multitasking is a myth. If you have several simple, brainless tasks, maybe you can do a couple at once. But if you need reflection or depth, forget it. Attention Deficit Disorder is a problem for people precisely because much of modern life really does demand more than ten seconds of sustained attention. Multitasking is a chance to accomplish many things poorly, all at once. It takes nine months to make a baby, and it takes focused concentration to make great breakthroughs.

In the people realm, multitasking can be deadly. Consider this: Effective leaders connect with their followers. When someone comes to you for direction and motivation, talking while checking your e-mail won’t inspire loyalty and commitment. If you’re not committed enough to give someone your full attention, why should they be committed to you?

The emergency solution

Our whole economy seems “just-in-time,” with lag times and delays removed. Here is one illustration. Recent banking deregulation allows checks to clear instantly, eliminating the “float” that provided many businesses with a few additional days of wiggle room to finance cash flow. Now, everyone must be that much more vigilant about their cash.

Just-in-time brings its own problems, too. Problems can happen, just-in-time. When one piece of our tightly coupled, precision system falters, the entire thing can come tumbling down. We risk utter collapse if we stop if even for a minute. Not exactly a recipe for sanity.

So make use of it: Become emergency driven. If the overwhelm is too great, rather than trying to avoid emergencies, orient your life around them. Ignore your inbox. Choose what you’ll let go, and then let go of it utterly and completely. What’s important will resurface as emergencies. Trust me, there will be some Type-A person in the next cubicle who will raise the alarm when a discarded initiative becomes critical. Then you can step in, do the work, and be a hero for saving the day. Sure, you can get promoted by doing it right the first time (assuming you work where such things are noticed), but you just may save your personal life by not doing it until it’s important.

It’s always possible that you have enough time to do everything, but just aren’t organized. I’ve spent four decades searching for the perfect organization system. The closest I’ve found is David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He lays out a system that empties your inbox daily, turning items into “To-Do’s” and ensuring things get done. Of course, he doesn’t have much to say about what you do when you commit to too much that it takes a full workday just to process your inbox.

That’s because, as with technology, better organization will often result in temporary savings followed by increased expectations. This, you can control. Get yourself organized—but don’t tell anyone. Scatter books around your office and season the scene with old folders with papers spilling out of them. Then empty your real inbox (hidden in the corner behind the potted palm) daily, and enjoy an organized life.

Just enough

You’ll probably notice that many of my suggestions can result in slower career growth, less productivity, decreased efficiency. That’s right. In fact, here is the most powerful strategy of all: Settle for just enough. Unless you’re living in a really different world from me, you can’t have it all. You have limited time and attention. You can’t spend it all trying for “the most” in every category. Figure out what “enough” is and make that your target.

Just enough applies to money, too. If you’re driven by money, decide in advance when you can ease up. A real estate investor I know never set an “enough” goal for herself. The last time I saw her, she had been a millionaire for twenty years, and worth over $50 million. Was she enjoying life? Hardly. By not deciding what was enough, she was pushing herself as hard as if she were still working on her first million.

Just enough applies to title and status, as well. An executive vice president of a several-hundred-person company decided that she hated her job. So she decided to downshift to a director-level position that gave her just enough status. It worked like a charm. She later downshifted again, spending a year climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and leading safaris in Africa. “Just enough” gave her the freedom to create a much richer life.

Just enough information

This is big. In our Brave New Economy, information is plentiful, cheap, and usually irrelevant. Lots of information is useless; the right information is invaluable. In preparation for a client meeting, someone will often circulate a dozen pages of client “data dump” the night before. Overwhelming, certainly. But is it worth reading? Who knows?

Don’t just accept information. Start by choosing some good questions, ask them, and collect just enough information to get a good enough answer. You’re not shooting for a perfect decision every time; you want just enough good decisions so you still reach your goal.

Your intuition may be helpful in defining this elusive “enough.” The COO of a company may find she can begin to make the right decision most of the time with just 30 percent of the information she normally would collect.

Scheduled maintenance

One thing you should have “just enough” of is work itself! In the book The Power of Full Engagement, author Tony Schwartz points out that regulating your energy is key to being productive. That means taking frequent work breaks to rest, relax, and recover. The same holds true writ large; schedule vacations throughout the year, and make sure you take them. When on vacation, leave your Internet connection and cell phone at home. Never, ever call into the office.

The last way to reduce overwhelm is to make frequent use of “no.” Say it when someone tries to obligate you for something you don’t have time for. Say “no” when your boss sets targets that can’t be reached without burnout. Say “no” when someone wants your feedback for the tenth time on the same memo—tell them, “it’s GOOD ENOUGH.”

“No” is hard for most of us to say. We like to feel appreciated and useful to others. But far better to say “no” many times and concentrate on a few great wins than to say “yes” after “yes” after “yes” and deliver poor results.

If saying “no” doesn’t work, take a drastic course: Let go. Stop caring. If your environment is demanding too much of you, let go of it. (And if you’re a leader, don’t put your people in the position of having to make this choice!) In a choice between sanity and emotional buy-in, choose sanity.

Detaching doesn’t have to mean that you do less work. In fact, if you detach in just the right way, you can start delegating out work you previously guarded with your life. Find someone who can do the work better, then let them go at it. The key to delegation, however, is striking the balance between sharing the burden and caring enough to make sure things get done.

At the end of the day, it’s not like there’s much choice. You will reduce your overwhelm. Either you’ll do it voluntarily and deliberately, or you’ll do it when you collapse with a nervous breakdown. You owe it to yourself to take control of your own life and make the hard choices now, when they’re uncomfortable, but doable. Something’s got to give. Don’t let it be you.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

See other stories in this series.