Friday, June 28, 2013

Looking for Signs of Trouble

In my last blog entry I talked about employee engagement and how leaders make a difference.  It's not always easy for a leader to know if their employees are engaged or not.  Bigger organizations engage in sophisticated employees surveys like Gallup's Q12 or customized from company's like Sirota.

Independent of these useful sophisticated instruments, there are early warning signs of trouble for leaders of all organizations of all sizes.  Leaders have to be attentive to these signs of trouble....they are often indicators of leadership problems that haven't yet surfaced.  Safety problems are one such indicator.  It's almost axiomatic that well led workplaces are safe workplaces.  Another is absenteeism...if people aren't showing up for work it can be an indicator of an unproductive work environment.  Unanticipated turnover  is another warning sign....especially among key staff with solid work histories who depart on short notice.  Spikes in requests for internal transfers can be another sign.  Union organizing efforts, although in and of themselves not always a leadership problem, can be an indicator of unresponsive leadership.

Although chronic unit under-performance may be another indicator, trouble spots can emerge even in organizations or units that are achieving or exceeding business goals.  This can be a sign of a "workplace tyrant" who is achieving short term goals at the expense of everyone around and below him in the hierarchy.  This kind of success is rarely sustainable and all too often goes unnoticed until the leader is promoted based on their ability to produce outstanding results. 

In none of these cases should the appearance of one or more of these indicators create an assumption of a leadership problem.  They should however be a sign to the senior leader to dig a little deeper into what the underlying causes are to safety problems or absenteeism or turnover or other indicator.  Early intervention can provide a coaching opportunity to a developing leader and prevent  long term organizational issues.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Do You Think About Your People?

"Do you think about the people who work for you as instruments to achieve your organizational objectives? Or do you think of them as human beings who have hopes, ambitions and personal lives in addition to capabilities?"

A couple of years ago I heard the Dean of a prominent US university business school challenge a group of executive MBA students with these questions.  His point was that if you see your people only as instruments to achieve organizational ends you will never get any of their discretionary effort and indeed will fall short of full productivity.  He went on to assert this was more than a touchy-feely, "humanistic-as-an-end-in-itself" approach to leadership....there is business value in treating your staff as individuals with different needs and in so doing tapping into their full potential. 

Just this week the most recent Gallup poll on employee engagement in the US was released.  You can access the full report at this link.  Their most recent research reveals that only 30% of the American workforce is actively engaged and 70% are not engaged or actively disengaged...actively disengaged meaning they hate their jobs and influence others to do so also.  Among the conclusions from this report are that 1) Engagement makes a difference in the bottom line...productivity, profitability, earnings per share(EPS), safety, customer satisfaction, absenteeism...almost every measure 2) Leaders make a difference  3) Different types of workers need different engagement strategies. 4) Engagement has a greater impact on performance than corporate policies and perks

These recent findings reinforce the points the B-school Dean was making to the EMBA students.  Leaders make a difference and the way they treat their people makes a difference.  If you treat your people as individuals...gender, age, tenure and other variables all come into play....if you support and empower them....if you coach and mentor more than you direct and demand....then you have a much greater chance of organizational success.

How do you think about your people?


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Was a Time Someone Took A Chance On You?

I think this is a great question for leaders.  The reason I think it is such a great question is two-fold.  One is it helps leaders reflect on all the different circumstances that led to them being in their current position.  I don't know any leader who could honestly answer that question with "no one ever took a chance on me."  All successful leaders have arrived at some key inflection point in their working lives where someone took a chance on them....where they weren't perfectly qualified for a role or hadn't had the requisite number of prior experiences, or did not have exactly the right formal education and training.  Yet, someone took a chance on them, they were successful and future opportunities presented themselves as a result.

Asked to describe such an instance, an astonishing number of leaders will describe an instance where they were figuratively "thrown into the deep end of the pool".  For my non-US readers the "being thrown into the deep end of the pool" is a metaphor that refers to how one can learn to swim.  Either one can take lessons from an instructor and learn how to properly breathe, kick their feet, move their arms and stay afloat.  Alternatively, one can just be thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool.   The assumption is that person will learn how to swim for pure survival.  Similarly, when you ask a successful leader their most meaningful leadership experience they will often describe just such a situation.  They encountered some combination of a new environment, unfamiliar business, or a foreign short they were put in a situation where they didn't quite know what they were doing and had to learn very fast in order to survive.  I can recall several times both in my US Army career and my career in the private sector where someone "took a chance on me" and I had to learn quickly to succeed.

The second part of the question for leaders is usually a little more difficult..."When was the last time YOU took a chance on someone?"  Paradoxically, many leaders, almost all of whom benefited from someone taking a chance on them, are hard pressed to come up with an instance where they took the same kind of chance on someone else as was done for them.

All too often, especially in large organizations, the talent management processes make it difficult to take a chance on someone.  Often "the system" only generates candidates who have had just the right combination of education, training and prior experiences to be considered "ready now".  Taking a chance on someone doesn't mean you should take wild chances on completely unqualified people.  Good leaders know when they are taking risk on a selection, provide a supportive environment, allow mistakes to be made and provide mentoring and coaching to support the steep learning curve.

Sometimes in the crush of everyday business it is easy to forget the combination of circumstances and serendipitous events that have led us all to a certain point in our working life.  The extent that  decisions made by others has affected our success is easily forgotten.  Asking the question "When was a time someone took a chance on you?" helps leaders remember...and perhaps do the same for someone else. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Taking a Decision When Your Team Disagrees

Last week on 4 June I wrote a blog on the "illusion of consensus" and what leaders can do to insure diverse views get surfaced.  There is another circumstance where there may be genuine consensus among the leadership team and the leader disagrees. With apologies to my global readers, I'll use a US historical example.

In his book, Undaunted Courage which describes the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, Stephen Ambrose describes just such a situation. In the very early days in the history of the United States, the US government purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  Although the British and the Spanish governments also claimed parts of this territory, the lands purchased comprised roughly the western most 80% of what is now the United States and were inhabited by scattered bands of native people. Thomas Jefferson, the US President at the time, chartered an expedition led by his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark.  Jefferson provided detailed instructions to the expedition leaders .  He identified the core mission was to "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce." They were instructed to explore the Missouri River and  any connecting river to the Pacific Ocean.  There is a good summary of the expedition at this Wikipedia link.

The expedition used flat bottomed pirogues as transportation for themselves and supplies.  They used long poles and paddles to propel themselves upstream.  They spent their first winter with the friendly Mandan native people in what is now North Dakota.  The Mandan, who roamed far to the West for hunting  were able to describe to the expedition what lay ahead and key landmarks along the way.  One key landmark was the "Great Falls" of the Missouri River.

The following Spring the expedition resumed their exploration armed with key information about these important landmarks.  The Missouri River in the Spring is extremely muddy as the snow and ice of winter melt.  Not only is it muddy, it is full of the detritus a river gathers.... tree branches, logs, large chunks of earth. It had to be incredibly difficult to both maneuver and propel the 55 ft long pirogues, loaded with supplies, against the river current filled with debris.

In spite of the difficulty, Lewis and Clark were gratified that the landmarks were as had been described to them by the Mandans.  After two months of this difficult journey, in June of 1805 the expedition came to a fork in the river. They still had not come to the Great Falls.  They were astonished that this fork, an important landmark, wasn't included in the descriptions they'd been given.  One branch went to the northwest, the other to the southwest.  Each branch was approximately the same width.  The branch to the north was of the exact character of the river they had experienced so far, equally muddy, and filled with sediment and debris.  The branch to the south was clearer, flowed a little more swiftly and filled with smooth rocks.  The members of the expedition, excepting Lewis and Clark, agreed the north branch was the Missouri River because it looked exactly as the Missouri they had experienced for over a year.  They believed the south branch was a tributary.  Lewis and Clark weren't sure.  They sent scouts up each fork with no conclusive outcome.  They then split the party in half and each party rode a day and a half up each branch and returned.  Again, these explorations did not yield any more clues about the correct way forward.  A decision had to be taken.

Lewis and Clark consulted with their team.  The forty men of the party unanimously reaffirmed their previous opinion that the north fork, which was exactly like the river they had so painfully navigated for over a year, was the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark disagreed.  From their study of early maps they reasoned they were close to the source of the river and when they approached the source the water would run more swiftly and the south fork.  They also reasoned the the north fork would have to be quite long in order to accumulate so much debris and they believed they were too close to the source for the correct river to accumulate all that debris..  In a remarkable tribute to their leadership the members of the team "said very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us anywhere we thought proper to direct but that they still thought that the other was the river."  They took the south fork and three days later, 13 June 1805....208 years ago yesterday...they arrived at the Great Falls of the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark were correct.

So what are the leadership lessons in this story?  One is the leader has to have an idea of what lies ahead....not only key landmarks but a recognition there will be critical uncertainties.  When faced with one of these critical decision points, it's good to explore options and gather data to try to make a more informed decision.  There are times however, when gathering additional data doesn't help...there is still considerable uncertainty and a decision has to be made.  It's also a good practice to consult with the team on these type matter the decision they are more likely to follow if team members believe their point of view has been considered.  Consultation with the team doesn't mean that good leaders "take a vote and go with the majority" or in this case, with the consensus point of view.  Sometimes leaders have to take decisions in spite of disagreement.  It's uncomfortable for any leader when faced with this situation, but great leaders know the correct way forward doesn't always look like the successful ways of the past.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Taking Time Off-A Leadership Issue and a Tipsheet

It's the beginning of the summer in the northern hemisphere.  It's the time when many schools are in recess and workers begin to schedule their vacations.   A recent article on the benefits of taking time off caught my eye.  At one end of the spectrum the article highlights the fact that the US is the only developed country in the world with no laws that mandate a minimum number of paid vacation days for each employee.  The article also highlights an innovative approach of one Canadian health care organisation.  You can find it at this link.   In the Canadian case, the almost unthinkable idea of unlimited paid vacation time for staff has been successfully implemented.  I'm also including a link to a BBC produced tool that allows you to compare working hours among countries considered to be in the "developed world" by the OECD.  BBC tool link is here.

It's fairly easy to conclude that more hours worked lead to less productive, less healthy work force.  It's also clear there are huge differences among countries which produces a challenge for the leader of a global activity.  Here are some tips to address that challenge.

Be Clear About Your Expectations.  As you can see from the BBC tool, in many countries longer working hours are a measure of a good employee.  Be clear that you expect staff to take their allotted vacation so both in writing and verbally. 

Make it Part of the Performance Conversation with Your Direct Reports.  "Have you taken all your vacation time yet?  When do you plan to do so?"  These questions in performance conversations let staff know you are serious about it.

Set the Example-  Setting the example is always a good leadership practice and it is especially important in this area. There is no question a global leadership role can be a grind.  With early morning and late night teleconferences and webcasts to accommodate multiple time zones it's easy to slip into 14 hour work days and doing catch up work on weekends.  If you say taking time off is important and then don't take it yourself no one believes you really mean it.

Unplug When You Take Time Off-  This is especially important in today's 24/7 wired world.  Early in one of my global leadership roles, I continued to stay connected, monitored email and made comment on what I thought were important issues.  A trusted colleague, a woman from another country who worked for me, gave me feedback.  "Please don't do that. When you do, you are telling me you expect me to do so when I take time off, and I need to disconnect and clear my head".  Great advice.

Don't Reward Overwork.    When it comes to performance appraisal, promotion and bonus decisions be cautious about rewarding those who put in long hours.  It's not easy.  Some people who work long hours often get more done on sheer volume alone.  I never went so far as to penalize someone for excessive working hours but I did have a case where I told someone "your reward would have been  greater if you'd set a better example in how you completed your work".

Take a Cue From Your European Colleagues.    "Holiday time" has long been more sacrosanct in Europe than elsewhere.  The EU mandate on minimum vacation time helps but those cultural traditions long preceeded the mandate. My EU based colleagues were well ahead of the rest of us on this issue.

Synchronize Time Off Among the Leadership Team.  Everyone can't be off at the same time.  Make sure you've got "coverage", and it's clear who has authorities to act and take decisons in your absence....and let them take decisions. It's good leader development practice to "sit in the chair" and be accountable for the decision 


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Managing Agreement-The Illusion of Consensus Trap- A Tipsheet

There is a famous experiment in social psychology called the Solomon Asch experiment.  In this experiment everyone in a control group intentionally provides an obviously incorrect answer to a simple question about a visual image.  The subject of the experiment is then asked to provide his answer, unaware of being intentionally misled.  You can watch this process unfold in a YouTube link on Professor Michael Roberto's blog.  The results of this experiment have been replicated multiple times.  It's a powerful demonstration of the very human desire to conform to the views of the group. This can lead to the "illusion of consensus" and some really faulty decision making.  Great leaders recognize this and devise tactics to mitigate this risk.  These tactics and techniques are especially important on global diverse teams.

How does the leader get the full benefit of the diversity of their team and not fall into the "illusion of consensus" trap?  The goal of a team-based decision is to identify a problem or issue, surface divergent views, debate those views, then take a decision and act. There are a couple of things of which to be aware.  One is the influence that the first person to speak or the person who speaks most assertively on a team can have....people often line up behind those views.  The leader's expressed point of view can also greatly influence the degree to which a team is willing to diverge in their thinking...."the boss has made up her mind"   Subject matter experts can also affect the degree to which people are willing to present contrary views.  A short list of how to deal with these issues and insure divergent thinking includes:
1.  Designate a "devil's advocate".  A very senior person told me not long ago that in his board meetings he designates a devil's advocate to present a challenge to an emerging convergence of opinion.
2.  Know the style preferences and cultural nuances of your team members.  Rather than open dialogue, designate someone to lead the conversation who might otherwise defer to an assertive, first mover.
3.  "Listen for silence".  This is especially important in teleconferences.  If you haven't heard someone for some time on a conversation, invite their voice in.
4.  Know your people well enough to detect non-verbal signs of discomfort.  "Tom, I can tell you aren't comfortable with the way this conversation is headed.  Can you share with us what you are thinking?"
5.  Master the engagement skills of Inquiry, Advocacy, Mental Models and the Ladder of Inference.  
6.  Daniel Kahneman even suggests team members write out their point of view on agenda items before dialogue starts.  It's not practical for every agenda item in every meeting but for certain issues it is quite useful.
7.  Be choiceful about when you express your point of view as a leader.  If you truly are seeking divergence on an issue, guide the conversation but also let it flow.  If you have a strong point of view, acknowledge it up front and invite challenge. How you handle the challenge will determine to the degree to which people are later willing to do so.  If you hammer dissenting views into submission, don't expect challenges to your thinking in the future.  If you do have a strong point of view, withhold it and then later hammer disagreement into submission, don't expect much conversation in the future until you have spoken.
8.  Watch for weak signals that challenge your own mental models.  This can be especially important in mature teams where the leader's attitudes and views are well known and shared.  This makes it even harder to surface a dissenting view.
9.  Be cautious if your team agrees "too quickly" on a complicated issue.  Use your engagement skills to expose mental models and challenge assumptions the team are collectively making. 

Managing agreement requires just as much skill from the leader as managing disagreement.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jet Lag and the Global Leader-A tipsheet

In spite of the advances in technology, travel across multiple timezones is a reality for leaders in global organizations.  I strongly believe that paradoxically, technology makes face to face interaction more important, not less important.  It's the face to face interaction and relationships that give you speed when working virtually.  My own theory is we create thousands of impressions of others, most unconscious, when we are together.  Facial expressions, tone of voice, the use of humor, interpreting silence and dozens of other impressions are formed when we interact face to face.  Those impressions make teleconferences, video conferences, web casts, and email exponentially more effective.  Creating those face to face opportunities means lots of long haul, multiple time zone, international travel, often of short duration...3-5 days for leaders in global organizations.  On a very practical level, leaders in these organizations have to develop strategies for dealing with the effects of jet lag.

Today's Wall Street Journal has some useful tips and the results of current research on jet lag. You can access it at this link. Wall Street Journal article on jet lag.  Strategies listed include some combination of adjusting one's sleep schedule days before a trip, taking the hormone melatonin, seeking light at certain times or forcing the body to eat and sleep on local time immediately on arrival.  The article suggests that the right combination of these strategies will vary by individual.

My own experience supports the suggestions in the article.  To that list I'd also add a few other  things.  One is getting sleep on the airplane.  Some people can do this better than others but it was especially important for me traveling West to East where I left the USA in the afternoon and arrived in Europe the next morning.  I'd also not schedule meetings in the morning of my arrival day but check into a hotel early and get a couple of hours rest before afternoon meetings. I forced myself to stay up as long as I could that first night.  Melatonin didn't work for me so I also used prescription sleep medication under a physicians supervision to insure I was able to sleep though the night.

The global leader will necessarily experiment with some combination of these strategies to discover the approach that works best for them.