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Posts from the ‘Managing’ Category

Can Your Managers Manage?

If you are a senior leader and have direct reports that manage others please answer these questions:

  • Do your directs meet at least once a month with each of their directs? Do you even know if they do or not?
  • Is there observable evidence that your people are developing their people? Do you see growth or improvements?
  • Are your people taking credit for work that their teams do or do they acknowledge the team?
  • Are you confident that your directs have the basic management skills necessary to be effective at all aspects of their jobs?

I bring this up because it is quite apparent to me that so few managers actually know how to manage. It used to be (way way back in the 80’s and 90’s) that most public companies had extensive management training programs. If you are old enough to remember Crotonville or St. Charles then you know what I’m talking about. Most companies were not as resource rich as GE or Motorola but there was a booming industry of management programs. To prepare you for a promotion into management you received up to 40 hours of company-specific training. Once you were in your role for a year or so then you began taking more advanced courses to prepare you for more senior roles.

Then the economic crisis hit and most of these programs disappeared. These days very few companies still offer internal management training although they have some money tucked away to sponsor educational opportunities for a select group of high potentials. We have moved from management training as a requirement for promotion to a perk for a handful of people in the hopes that this will help retain them.

Which begs the question: are you confident that your managers can manage? Have they received formal or informal training? If not, are you just hoping that they are doing a good job?

All HR professionals can tell you that the weak link in organizations is the limited management capability. Up and coming people are being promoted into more senior roles and given more responsibility but they are not being prepared to be successful.

These are the common behaviors I see from these earnest but ill-equipped managers.

  • Command and control style with their direct reports. It’s not that their own bosses are using this outdated style, it’s more a matter of not knowing how to supervise or develop others. “Just do what I tell you to do” is a default position because they have such a limited tool kit.
  • High levels of frustration with people issues. These managers haven’t figured out that people come in all varieties that can create some interesting dynamics. When called upon to referee or resolve interpersonal issues they are clumsy and unhappy about the distraction from the real work. They don’t understand why people just don’t get along…or see things their way.
  • Lots of managing up. These folks are good at making their bosses believe that they have everything under control. When something blows up and the boss finds out the boss is often surprised. The direct reports of an inexperienced manager have a more negative opinion than the senior leader. This gap only becomes more evident through a 360 process.
  • Insecurities that get masked in bravado. These are valuable and smart people who find themselves in a situation they struggle to master. Managing other people and team dynamics are so much more complicated than their areas of expertise. But they don’t want to admit that they are out of their element so when things don’t go well there is much finger pointing, defensiveness or chest thumping.

Today’s notion of management training is to “throw ’em in the deep end” and they will eventually figure it out. That may be true for a small minority. For most of us regular human beings in the real world we, our teams and our companies suffer. What I don’t understand is how we could have gone from all to nothing and expect the same results. How could corporations invest so much money and time in preparing people for bigger responsibilities and reaping the benefits of that and then pull the plug and still expect great outcomes? Nothing about that makes sense. And I don’t hear enough conversation about the pain and problems this is causing.

The standard answer an executive gives when the head of HR proposes a solid plan to fix this problem is “we don’t have money”. No amount of metrics and business cases and lost productivity analyses are persuasive. When budgets are shaped and then hacked away at training and development is always the sacrificial lamb. This is so short sighted.

So, senior leader, I implore you to rethink your position. If you keep elevating talented but unprepared people into management roles you will continue to hurt your company. Where is the evidence that this is already occurring? Look at your employee engagement results. Look at data from exit interviews. Find out if you are losing your most talented people. See if the people you retain are not your A team. Find out if people two layers down from you are on the rise. Listen to what your HR folks are telling you.

Managers are where the rubber hits the road. They need to learn how to take the sharp corners and drive through snow and ice. You need to help them gain some traction.

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Paying Dues: A Generation Gap

If you are a leader who is over 45 years old do you believe that others must “pay their dues” before becoming eligible for a senior role? Must the younger generation move up the corporate ladder in much the same fashion that you did? Is the price of admission into the upper echelon many stepping stones with a steady ascent and years of very long hours and plenty of time spent carrying other people’s water? Then you must be really pissed about the brashness of these younger people and the changing norms for getting ahead.

I’m not going to comment on the traits…for good or bad…of the 20-40 somethings and how there is a sharp contrast with the outlook of many older people. Instead I want to focus on how the world has changed and how that necessitates the need for change in the work environment. Paying dues may be as antiquated as a Palm Pilot.

This is a short list of workplace norms that are still alive in many major companies around the globe.

  • Flattened though they may be, most organizational structures are still hierarchical. There is a clearly defined path for moving up and very few people are allowed to skip a grade. If there are no seats available at the next level up you may be encouraged to take a lateral move to build your portfolio…so that you are more prepared for a promotion. Today’s version of paying dues.
  • Performance management and succession planning processes are quite disciplined. Several times a year you are assessed on how well you are doing and once a year your name is tossed around by senior executives to determine your “readiness” for moving up. Unless you have a highly specialized and valuable skill that is critical to the bottom line you can hang around in the pool of “ready now” folks for awhile. There may or may not be an opportunity for you but everyone is crossing their fingers that you will stick around…that you will be okay paying more dues.
  • When you reach your boiling point and don’t want to wait any longer (which could be 9 months or 3 years) and you threaten to leave there will be a flurry of behind the scenes conversations. Your boss will talk with the CEO and the head of HR and think out loud about your real value to the company and if they can afford to have you leave. If those three people came up through the ranks and paid their dues they may trash you for being such a whippersnapper. If they decide they need to retain you the conversation shifts to not wanting to set a precedent for others to storm the gates.
  • If you are under 40 and promoted into an executive role things could be tough. Your older peers may struggle to accept you as an equal, you will feel insecure and staff will wonder what is so special about you. You will find it far more challenging than you imagine to establish a style that garners respect and gravitas. You are more likely to vacillate between being overly self confident and anxious. If you repeat “I’m the youngest executive on the team” frequently this will not help your case. You are telegraphing that you may not have paid all your dues.
  • Even in organizations that claim to be more fluid, less hierarchical, more willing to abandon strict guidelines there will be few exceptions to the rule. There is a gap between stated desires and actual habits. Paying dues remains the norm.

The question that must be asked is: Do these 20th century practices work in the 21st century economy? I think the generation gap is less about the human players and more about the structure of the workplace. And in spite of the cool tech company cultures (Facebook, Google etc) most corporations are still very old school. I would even say that the tech companies aren’t as different as they appear. They may have more relaxed dress codes and ping pong tables but there are still some dues to pay.

I don’t have all the answers about what parts to dismantle and what to build instead. But this is what I challenge about the current system.

  • Long hours are crazy. Yes, work is done around the clock because of globalization but that doesn’t mean that people have to work an endless amount of hours. Long hours used to be part of paying your dues and that is still true in some cases. But doesn’t it feel like how things were a century ago before labor laws? Just because it’s a white collar job doesn’t make it right. There is more research every day about the negative impact on individuals, families, companies and societies because of grueling hours at work.
  • The number one job satisfier in survey after survey is interesting and stimulating work that allows for growth and learning. Why doesn’t that form the basis of how we structure the workplace? Yes, there are job rotations and development programs that try to get at this. And yes, jobs can’t have the boring designed out them entirely. But there’s got to be a better way to meet the needs of a highly educated and motivated workforce that will benefit the individual and the company.
  • There need to be more creative ways to think about compensation. Again, surveys say that money is lower down on the list of job motivators…except for people that flock to Wall Street. There is still too much “throw some money at it” to solve talent retention issues. Money is important and people should be well compensated but there are others things that matter in today’s workforce and they should be included in how we think about compensation (ie. family considerations, more vacation time, philanthropic activities). But rethinking this means taking on the sacred cow of outrageous CEO comp. I’ve worked with many CEOs and I don’t buy that they should be paid so exponentially more because of the nature of that role.
  • Specialized expertise is required in today’s economy but our org structures don’t have a good way of managing that. We used to call these experts “individual contributors” which is just code for a-wonk-who-should-never-ever-manage-others. These are the mad scientists who are a blessing and a curse to executives. We need more of these people and we can’t put them all off in the corners with the potted plants.
  • More work today is achieved through project teams but the guidelines for compensation and multiple reporting lines and ownership are a mess. In spite of the acceptance of teamwork in most work environments the practices around recognition and accountability are complicated and uninspired. There are still lots of 1980’s processes that are tweaked for today. Not good enough.

I have long been frustrated that work environments today don’t look wildly different than they did 50-60 years ago in spite of the fact that the world has changed so dramatically. With women in the workforce, globalization and technology you would think that collectively we would be clever enough to reinvent how we work. Instead it seems that work has just expanded. We need to stop thinking in terms of paying dues and think more about turning it on its head.

Type A: Good News, Bad News

If you believe that you can get more done and do it better than anyone else then you might just be a Type A. If you feel like you can run circles around everyone because they are slow as molasses then you might just be a Type A. If you are most comfortable when you have total control of people, places and situations then you might just be a Type A.

And if you are rewarded for your great results but mostly disliked then you probably are a Type A.

And good luck to you folks who have to manage a Type A.

I won’t bore you by repeating all the latest research on Type A’s (highly productive but a ticking time bomb interpersonally and health-wise) so let’s cut to the chase. In the real world most organizations still hire, value and reward these folks. Look at any executive team and you will find 60-75% of the members are hyper-driven. And they have the good stock prices to show for their efforts. That’s the good news.

But here’s the bad news: these Type A’s drive people crazy…including customers. Crazy to the point of running in the other direction. They tend to be controlling, demanding, aggressive, egocentric and completely insensitive to the people around them. By insensitive I mean that they don’t care how their actions effect others. They are the anti-collaborators and team builders. They are focused on results and get there through command and control and sheer force of will.

The dilemma for the CEO or other leaders is “do I keep this highly productive person in spite of the cultural and people damage in his/her wake”? Before you even say it let me stop you. Of course the party line these days is to focus as much (if not more) on the how of achieving goals but in the end the what is accomplished still wins out. Shareholder value and all… So let’s be clear, Type A’s are here to stay and we need to figure out how best to manage the situation. (As an aside, I have consulted with countless CEOs about this very situation and I can report that approximately 1 out of 8 times an especially obnoxious driver is let go. And some of those had to do with potential hostile workplace complaints. In other words, it had to get really really bad before taking action.)

If you work with or are the boss of a Type A here are some things to keep in mind.

  • They run at much higher RPMs than most and they really like getting a lot of stuff done. Anything or anyone that stands in the way is an obstacle that needs to be mowed down. Don’t take it personally…you are just preventing them from achieving their goals.
  • Their self esteem and self worth is built on achievements. The more they can rack up the better they feel about themselves. And they will compare their pile of chits against yours. They are competitive with themselves and others.
  • It’s not that they don’t care about other people it’s just not on the list of top priorities. They will demonstrate concern for others after the milestone and more likely in private.
  • Yes, they use I more than We and that is annoying. But understand that in the context of their mindset. They see themselves as responsible for all outcomes and they strive to always have good outcomes. It’s not that they don’t know others had something to do with the success. It’s that they don’t comprehend how success would have occurred if they hadn’t been front and center all along.

All that said, you still need to manage them and your interactions with them. You really don’t want them creating damage.

  • If you are the boss you need to have regular and consistent conversations that bring the Type A into alignment. You can’t send a double message of “you are doing great things but you are a bit of a cowboy.” Clearly define the parameters within which s/he must operate and reign him back in each time he violates this. He will push back hard (“don’t you want me to be entrepreneurial?”, “you’ll kill the business unless I do this” etc.). You have to have strong, clear and consistent messages.
  • If the Type A is routinely disrupting the team efforts or meetings by being a bulldozer, you as the leader must intervene firmly. The damage that gets done to a team when this aggression is unchecked is profound. People will leave the department or the organization. So unless you are willing to have one person left standing, you need to control the conversations and make certain the collaboration is effective. Don’t leave it up to peers to manage this person.
  • As a boss or colleague you have probably delivered feedback to this person. “Are you aware of the effect you have on me/others when you do such and such?” Even if that conversation goes well there is no change in the behavior. So if you are a peer, tell the boss and HR how harmful this person is to you. If you are troubled enough that you are thinking about leaving, raise that. Do this so that the boss can have a different feedback discussion with the Type A. “We’ve talked endlessly about your aggressive behaviors and I have not seen any change. I have a file of complaints about the damage you are doing to others and I won’t stand for it. You have a choice. Either get some help to learn better habits for working in this environment or understand that your future here is limited.” For a Type A they are more concerned about what will happen to them than what is happening to you. They usually push a boss to the wall and the boss has to eventually weigh the pros and cons of keeping this person. Once the boss sees more liability than value the next conversations are very easy.
  • If you are a peer make it clear that you cannot be pushed around. Don’t enter a control battle, just make it clear that you cannot be bullied. “I get that is what you want me to do but that is not what is going to happen. My priorities are X.” Be direct, be clear, be goal focused. Don’t personalize it on either side. S/he will go away and try to find a more willing victim.

For you Type A’s out there…be careful. Even if you enjoy great up side to your enormous drive there are some dramatic down sides. There are health concerns that are troubling. There are relationship issues at home and at work that will create isolation. (No one likes being bossed around and not heard as a steady diet.) And there are real career bumps in the road. Your aggression will be tolerated up to a point but when you put enough key players or customers or business ventures at risk you will be out the door. Yes, you may land some place new but the pattern will repeat. And then you will be damaged goods and no one will get near you. But if you can manage to develop some decent interpersonal skills and continue to drive for results then you are golden.

I only hope you get this message before it is too late for you…professionally or personally.

And for you bosses of Type A’s draw a line in the sand. You hired this person because s/he can bring in the results so give some leeway for her way of doing things. But do not allow her to get away with crazy shit…just because she delivers.

And for you peers of Type A’s accept that you will always encounter these folks. So find a comfortable way to see the value they bring without being stepped on.

It’s Bonus Time

Sometime within the next couple weeks your bonus pay out will arrive. You’ve had your performance review (hopefully) and gotten some indication about how you were rated. In spite of a solid review, many of you will be disappointed with the actual chunk of change you receive. You may feel that your rating and/or bonus are unfair. What can you do?

The short answer is: not much. Most companies with 300 people or more have a very prescribed process that every employee is put through. You submit a self assessment about how well you met your goals, your boss does her evaluation of you, the two of you have a conversation, the boss submits all the ratings and paperwork to HR and then each manager divvies up the pot in a calibration session. Calibration is a fancy word for distributing the pool of money in some rational way amongst the whole team. That could result in you getting less cash even though you had good ratings. The biggest bonuses go to those who performed exceptionally or are a flight risk. It’s not a bad process. It really is intended to be fair and truly reward good performance. But once the die is cast there is usually no recourse.

The time to contest a review is during the conversation…near the start of this process. Here are some useful tips. I can’t promise you will get what you want.

  • When you are writing up your self assessment be as factually detailed as possible. List all the activities pertaining to the goal BUT leave out any descriptors. “Completed the project ahead of deadline for an additional 100K savings” rather than “Completed the project in record time and exceeded savings expectations”. Leave the evaluation to your boss. The facts are useful because she probably doesn’t remember what happened in March and needs to be reminded. Don’t expect your boss to just know everything you did. Put it in writing.
  • While we are on the topic, don’t take credit for stuff that a whole team of people accomplished. If you were one of six people who worked on something make that clear in your review. If you had oversight for that team, say that and then describe what the team achieved. Bosses don’t appreciate when you take credit for others’ work.
  • During the review conversation your boss will usually start with all the good news. Strong in these areas, high grades for those achievements, yadda yadda. You will enjoy hearing those things but you will be waiting for the bad stuff. Which will certainly come…even if it is small. When your boss disagrees with your assessment of how completed a goal is, provide additional information. If she still has a different point of view ask her what 100% would look like. Ask all your questions at this point. Raise all your objections. She may or may not change her mind…usually not. She is more likely to change if she has additional facts that she didn’t know before.
  • Then you will get to the part of the conversation about your behaviors; the good and the bad. You will have many strengths but there are always things that you could do better. This is a tricky part of the discussion. You may have rated yourself as exceeding expectations when it comes to collaboration but your boss doesn’t see it that way. Hopefully she will give you examples of times when you blew it. If not, ask for the specifics. She will also have some feedback from others. Never forget that all year long people are coming up to your boss and saying, “Geez, Paolo is great to work with. He really helped the team stay focused” or “I don’t think we’ll be asking Jana to make any more presentations to our group. She was so combative when people challenged her.” She is putting this feedback together with her own experience of you and it will have weight at evaluation time. There are only two good ways to respond to more critical feedback. “Thank you for telling me this. I will really have to think about how to improve in this area.” Or “I’m surprised (or disappointed) to receive this feedback. Please tell me more so that I can fully understand the issue so that I can work hard to improve in this area.” Under no circumstances should you get defensive at this point. You will only make it worse.
  • If the critical feedback you are hearing is completely bat shit (and you trust that you are not being defensive) and/or coming from a vindictive place you do have some options. If your boss is a bit whacked you ought to anticipate this moment and be prepared to say, “I need you to give me multiple examples of these behaviors. Please tell me about times you observed this.” Take detailed/verbatim notes while she is talking. If it is really out in left field she will be hard pressed to describe specifics. When she is done say, “You know, I really see things differently and I would like to have another discussion about this before you finalize my review. I want to get some additional feedback from those people you say I upset so I would like to get our HR business partner in the loop. Would you mind if we got additional input?” Again, 50-50 outcome. But if your boss is out to hurt you bring in a third party early. But only do this if, in fact, there is something way off about her assessment.
  • Once the conversation has concluded and the documents are completed and submitted there isn’t much you can do. You may have hoped that the evaluation would add up to an exceeds but your boss may give you a meets expectations. Bonuses are calculated from those ratings. Best to air your disagreements during the review discussion before everything is a done deal.

If you are bummed by your bonus (or review) join the crowd. When all else fails find out what it takes to get an A from your boss. Have her spell it out or ask those who got an A. If you don’t feel too much like a poseur and you could pull it off genuinely, follow the script. But if your approach is different or you think the expectations are unreasonable then have some conversations during the goal setting process…which is taking place right about now. Really try to nail down what it will take to get higher ratings this year. If there is a big gap between your boss’ demands and what is humanly possible then it’s time for you to be thinking about your own Plan B. You don’t want to be in this same spot next year.


The concept and the terminology dates back over 100 years but the dialogue around work-life balance has changed significantly since women became a major presence in the work place and technology and globalization blurred the lines between hours for work and hours for personal life. I’m certain that you’ve read every article out there and even tried the list of 5 things to do to regain control over your time. You may even work someplace that has a great culture or programs that urge you to leave the office and have a life. Allow me to burst the bubble and get real about this whole thing. (Disclaimer: I am only talking about white collar professions here.)

Lately it seems that every new client asks if, in addition to our focus on effective leadership, we could spend some time on work-life balance. (Just the term makes me cringe!) They want to see their families, exercise, sleep, eat a home cooked meal, have the energy to see friends. And I’m glad my clients want those things. But here is how the conversation usually goes:

Client: I feel so run down. I can’t keep up this pace at work. By the time I get home I am so spent that I have nothing left for my spouse and my kids are already asleep. I’m answering emails until11 every night and spend big chunks of time on the weekends working. I can’t go on like this.                                     Me: Wow. That sounds awful. Tell me two things. What is the thing outside of work that is the highest priority? What can you let go of at work?                     Client: Time with my family is the most important thing in my life. But there really isn’t much at work that I can let go off. (Then comes a litany of major projects and deadlines and expectations and travel and, and and…) I’ve tried to talk with my boss before about this and I tried to pull back a bit but that didn’t really work.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Me: So if I get what you’re saying, even though your family is super important you choose to be consumed by work.                                                                             Client: No, you don’t get it. I don’t have a choice about my work responsibilities and hours. It’s not entirely within my control.                                                       Me: Oh, so you feel like you do have control over neglecting those that matter most to you? So you exercise control (in the negative) with your family but you are helpless at work?

This is usually when my client gets defensive and pissed off. When the venting is over I just calmly say, “So you don’t like the feeling of no control at work so you take control of choices that leave you and your family feeling like crap. There is nothing in this dynamic that sounds remotely sane, healthy or productive.” And then a more real conversation can begin.

I am not going to minimize the real pressures we all face at work but I am not buying that we are helpless lambs forcibly cut off from our loved ones. I’m also not denying that companies are completely outrageous when it comes to expectations of their work forces. What I am saying is that there is a whole lot of bullshit going on when it comes to having a rational conversation about striking this imaginary work-life balance.

Actions absolutely speak louder than words. There is not a spouse or child who actually believes “I don’t have a choice about staying late at the office. I’d much rather be home with you.” If you really do want to be at home that is where you would be. Not always but a whole lot more. I know that you feel conflicted inside but you need to understand that the actions you choose tell the greater truth. You want to be engaged with work. It is satisfying and rewarding in different ways than your family is. And it mostly feels good…except for the volume and exhaustion. If it really felt terrible, trust me, you would make a different choice. We are not wired to be habitually masochistic. We can take it for short periods of time but not as a steady diet. So although you miss your family and friends…including the rewards you derive from being with them…the good stuff you get from work trumps all that. And that’s the real truth.

In the real world it is a rare boss who can’t be flexible about you working less than 14 hour days or wants you to miss every single baseball game your child plays. Most managers have the same desires and will be more generous with you than they may be with themselves. They know it is smart business to support your needs to have a life. They want you to recharge so you can be more productive. So whatever you imagine/perceive/believe is the expectation for your endless devotion to work…it just ain’t so. (I know there are asshole bosses out there who are absolute demons. But they are the exception, not the rule.) Most managers will say, “As long as you get your work done well I have no issue with you leaving at 4 on Thursdays to coach your daughter’s soccer team.”

So here is a cold splash of reality:

  • If you are upset about the huge amount of time you spend at work at the expense of all other aspects of your life, look no further than in your own mirror for the answers. Your company isn’t going to institute some fancy program to relieve work load pressures or ring the school bell at 5 to remind everyone to leave. So if you are really unhappy you need to do something different; you need to make new choices and take new actions.
  • If your distress about not seeing your family and friends is born more out of guilt or wanting to stop the arguments rather than a heartfelt desire for things to be different, then you need to be honest with yourself and others. Fess up to the fact that work is rewarding. Sometimes that means it is more rewarding than other parts of your life and sometimes it means the two are separate but equal.
  • Grow a set and have a good conversation with your boss. You will probably get a green light so it will be incumbent upon you to be vigilant about sticking to the new plan. There will be a zillion opportunities to slide back into the old habits. It is up to you to be sure that doesn’t happen. If it does, don’t blame others.

Our work is very compelling. Along with decisions about marriage and children it is something in which we invest a great deal. We spend 4-10 years accumulating college degrees and then 40 years honing our skills. It forms a core piece of our identity and it offers huge financial, self esteem and achievement benefits. It makes perfect sense that we all devote a crazy number of hours engaged in our work. We don’t have to pretend or deceive others that “my manager is making me do it”. We WANT to be working.

But work is not our whole identity. The people and activities outside of work also provide great benefits: love, joy, health, connection, support, adventure, excitement. Also compelling wouldn’t you say? The challenge is to manage the pull and drive we feel for all aspects of our lives. It’s not easy and our priorities change all the time. But I think a good first step is to be honest with yourself and those around you about what you want.

Once you’ve sorted out what is truly driving your choices then you can read those other articles about How to Achieve Work-Life Balance in 15 Minutes Every Day.


Had to pass this article along to you. Ordinarily I steer far away from sports analogies but I received this from a friend who recently completed the Kona Ironman (a lawyer in his off time). He thought it was a great read for HR and team professionals. I quite agree. It is a very good description of when a leader allows someone to use his instincts and creativity…to color outside the lines. But this is all in the context of much disciplined study and practice and clear parameters. Even though I vaguely understood all the technical football stuff I got the point.


Carlotta began the team meeting and told everyone the project missed the last two milestones and the CEO was not happy. Anticipatory tension filled the air. What bad fate was going to befall them? Before their imaginations had time to get carried away Carlotta announced, “This is completely unacceptable and here is what is going to happen.” What followed was an aggressive (sic. unrealistic) plan to right the wrongs. She was firm without raising her voice. She was direct without being hostile. She also didn’t take a breath or let anyone interject. When Sami tried to ask a question he was cut off. The message was clear to the whole team: you have your marching orders. Period.

Across the hall Ramesh made the same announcement to his team. Then he paused. “We don’t need the CEO’s displeasure to tell us that something has gone off the rails. I want to hear from all of you. What are the obstacles to our success and what do we need to do to get back on schedule?” The room burst into boisterous conversation…bordering on chaotic. Within 10 minutes there was a consensus of root cause concerns and the best path forward.

Which team do you think has the highest probability of turning things around? How motivated and productive will the members’ actions be in each case? Which team will feel the greatest sense of urgency and ownership?

I know what you’re going to say. There are moments of crisis when the leader simply has to give clear directions and get everyone moving. It is not a time for discussion. It is time to be decisive and act like a leader! But in your gut you believe that Ramesh’s approach has more merit because it is so inclusive and gains the members’ commitment.

In the real world both methods will get you good outcomes…for this particular crisis. But in the long run asking questions instead of giving orders is more sustainable. The more you set yourself up as the center of the universe imagine what happens when you aren’t available. It’s not that your people aren’t capable of figuring things out without you. It’s that you have trained them to be obedient, wait for your directive and second guess their own good thinking. And be honest here; if you are a Carlotta aren’t you giving mid-year feedback to these very same people to “step up and take initiative”? I’m fairly certain you don’t even hear the mixed message.

Handing out directives is one, ONE, tool in your repertoire. If it is your go-to approach you really need to take a moment to reflect on this. Do you always need to be in control? Do you think you are the only one with the best ideas? Do you enjoy your status as leader a little too much? Or do you feel the entire responsibility rests on your shoulders? If you answered yes to these questions, I’ve got another one for you. When was the last time that you (a competent professional) worked your best and hardest for a boss that always had to be the one in charge? Were you able to learn or grow under this boss? Did you enjoy the job?

I rest my case.

Jean-Paul had spent more time than usual preparing for his meeting with Julian. This was the third conversation about Julian’s mediocre performance overall and quite specifically on his key project. Jean-Paul was dreading the whole thing. Everything he had tried up to this point had not resulted in any progress. He had more frequent check ins, gave more pointed guidance, set him up with a mentor and lightened his work load. It had been six months and Jean-Paul was ready to have the “come to Jesus” conversation.

“Julian, over the past six months I have provided additional time and resources so that you could improve your overall performance. How would you assess your progress?”

Julian hesitated and then said, “I know I haven’t come along as quickly as you would like but I’m really trying hard. I was able to complete phase two of the project and I have been meeting more regularly with my team, as you suggested. So I would say that things are moving in the right direction.”

Jean-Paul resisted his natural urge to pounce at this point. He had made a huge investment and it wasn’t paying off. He was frustrated and pissed off. “Okay. Are you satisfied with this degree of improvement?”

“Not really. But I really like my job and I really want to prove to you that I can do it well.”

“I appreciate that you want to please me but you’re also telling me that you are not meeting your own standards. How is that effecting you?”

“To be honest, I feel like I’m in a hole that I can’t dig out of. I know what I need to do but it just takes me too long and then I get upset with myself and then I dread coming in the next day. When we first talked about this six months ago I was so hopeful. But I have really been struggling.”

Now Jean-Paul felt like he could have the discussion he was hoping for. “I can see that this has been rough on you. I, too, was hopeful. But it seems we are now at a point when we need to assess the situation honestly and come up with a solution that will move us both beyond this frustration. Julian, what do you believe you need to do next?”

What followed was a brutally honest back and forth about Julian’s strengths and weaknesses and his own thoughts about where he could be most valuable…or not. They both agreed that he did not show promise (or desire) as a manager of others or being the lead on a major initiative. But he did have a highly specialized skill set that was sorely needed. Jean-Paul had entered the meeting with the intent to fire Julian but he left it with a plan to move him into an individual contributor role. They would try this for three months and see if it worked. If not, Julian had agreed to leave on his own accord.

Can you imagine tucking away all your anger and your inclination to summarily dismiss this guy in favor of asking him what he thought should happen? (In case you’re thinking that this would never happen in reality…this is a true story several times over.)

Here’s the power of asking questions: it forces others to step up. When you ask questions the other person has to express an opinion, offer an idea/solution, take the lead. In short, the more you draw out of someone, the more he will see himself as the center of the universe…the one who has to make the commitment and take action. When your people are co-creators of their destiny they will work like crazy to make it happen. Everybody wins.

So as much as you may enjoy all the control and being the center of gravity it is not a winning strategy when used too frequently. Ask more questions, put the responsibility for answers on others. And then I can teach all of you to be a therapist and answer others’ question with a question of your own! What do YOU think you should do?

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