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Posts from the ‘Organizations’ Category

Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.


Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

The Value of a Number Two Person

Current thinking suggests that a Chief Operating Officer or a Chief of Staff or an SVP of Corporate Strategy are all roles that are expensive, create an unnecessary layer at the top and not obviously valuable to the CEO or organization. What are the other executives to make of such a role? A gatekeeper, no line responsibility, no accountability to the bottom line, a cost center? In all the ways that an organization is measured, how can you quantify the outputs of any of these right hand roles? When budgets are tight and there is slashing afoot, these are some of the first people on the firing line. I think that is horribly shortsighted.

Few executive roles have a broad view of the organization. Finance, HR, communications and strategy do but there is very specific functional expertise attached to those jobs. Although they may serve the whole system, they don’t necessarily have deep knowledge of the day in-day out work. CEOs reach out to the functional heads to get answers but who helps weave all the parts together? Sometimes the CEO can do that but his/her attention is diluted because of all the external responsibilities. Also, s/he may not get the most unvarnished data upon which to draw conclusions because of the status differential between the CEO and those on the ground.

How can the CEO know: if the strategy is being well implemented, if the critical priorities are on track, if various departments are operating productively, if the latest change initiative is taking hold, if there are pockets of resistance or rebellion, if there are under utilized superstars or if there are projects that should be ended? Back in the day, a Number Two person had the scoop. Since the early 2000’s those roles have been disappearing because consultants were claiming it was just an expensive extra layer with no obvious value.

I propose that it is time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of a right hand wo/man. Here’s why.

  • Organizations need connective tissue. Try as they might, breaking down silos is still a big problem for organizations. Few leadership teams achieve a holistic, systemic approach to how they operate on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about those annual budget and strategy meetings; I mean getting the work done. Whatever collective agreements get made, everyone goes off into their own world to manage their slice. A great Number Two person sees across all these functions and helps create internal partnerships that aren’t obvious, knows who needs extra support and how to get those resources, steps in where necessary to keep things moving forward and tinkers around the edges. S/he has the broadest and deepest knowledge of the operations and people and can stitch pieces together to get the right things done.
  • Individuals need a sounding board. There needs to be a safe place/person where people can vent, problem solve out loud and be less censored. This person keeps the confidences, is highly respected and trusted, tries to get people to work out issues and then sends them away to go forth and be productive. HR can be used this way but a Number Two is more immersed in the business and is granted more credibility.
  • Someone needs to understand the politics without playing politics. Organizational dynamics can be infuriating, a time suck and unproductive. Someone who is perceived as neutral (the “ollie ollie oxen free” zone) can make useful suggestions to people about navigating the shark infested waters or how to steer clear of them. S/he can help individuals avoid career limiting moves or redirect attention to the important stuff. Best case scenario, Number Two can reach out to political animals and counsel them on how disruptive their behavior is and what to do instead.
  • The CEO needs a close advisor who has the true pulse of the place. If there is a Number Two, it is safe to say that the CEO has selected the person because they can work well together. S/he trusts this person to speak up when it is important, address annoying but critical issues away from the CEO, push back and challenge him/her, serve the whole organization rather than a small fiefdom, be a sounding board, offer early warning signs of trouble, share insights about morale and tell the truth always.
  • Without having a horse in the game, the Number Two serves the organization. Rather than bringing in the quarterly sales numbers or successfully launching a new product or orienting 35 new employees, there are no specific numbers this person must hit. Instead, s/he is helping others achieve their numbers. While divisional heads may use this as a way to dismiss the value of a Number Two, the organization at large is well supported by this person. In other words, everyone wins.

Can all this value be quantified? Nope. Do organizations know what they are missing without this person? Not particularly except for those mythic stories that float around the building about that long gone Chief of Staff who made the place hum. Do organizations understand what they are getting when they have a Number Two? Sometimes. Sort of. So if you can’t quite name it or measure it, how can you assign value to this role?

Have we really arrived at a place where only those things or people that have a numerical value are prized? Have we reduced the world of work to all numbers? Have we become so robotic that if someone isn’t directly contributing to the bottom line then they are fluff or overhead? I call bullshit. One of the greatest things a strong Number Two does for an organization is connection. Connection between people, projects, teams, functions, goals, opportunities, overlapping strategies and initiatives. Connection that closes the gaps between competing priorities and scarce resources. Connection to bring a wide swath of people together to solve extremely difficult problems. Connection between levels and across departments. Connection between people or activities that seem diametrically opposed. Connection to make the right stuff happen throughout the organization.

So before you consider eliminating a Number Two role in your organization because you can’t exactly define what this person does and what numerical value to assign, please stop. This may just be one of those positions that is not a commodity but can be Priceless.

Is It Caution, Resistance or Differences? Reactions to Change

Why does one person rejoice and another one feel dread when change is afoot? Why does a leader drag his heels while the staff is pushing for change? Why does a team stage a revolt when a new leader comes on board? Why do some people just sit back and hope to wait out the latest initiative?

Few things will evoke more “stupid human tricks” than responding to change efforts. Most of us are wired to feel cozy with homeostasis; it mirrors our biological imperative. Our companies, however, have a knack for upsetting that balance. That sets off our own idiosyncratic reactions. Understanding some typical patterns in ourselves and those we lead can help us figure out how to interpret and manage the dynamics.

Which category do you fit in? What about your staff?

  • “The CEO just doesn’t understand.” These people have usually been around for awhile and have done a thorough factor analysis to point out that a) this is not cost effective or b) it will damage the business or c) people will get hurt or confused or disengaged or a whole host of other terrible things. If only the leader had consulted more people (sic. ME) then s/he would clearly understand that this is a very bad idea.
  • “I respectfully disagree.” A variation on the first group, these are objective thinkers with low ego needs. They have studied the situation and simply have a different opinion about the best course forward. They may actually welcome some parts of the change but their problem solving brains lead down different tributaries and they believe their analysis is a stronger one.
  • “We’re fine as we are.” Leaders and/or staff exclaim that there is nothing to see here, everything is going fantastically well and no change is necessary. These are people who struggle to absorb the facts on the ground; poor earnings, market loss, dissatisfied customers and other relevant metrics. Like an ostrich, they prefer their heads in the sand.
  • “You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding!!” Open hostility with a tinge of self righteousness and arrogance; always a fun crowd to deal with. This is not the same as push back, which is more polite and rational. These folks get nasty and make this personal although it is often hard to know exactly why that is. Where does that rage come from?
  • “Yippee! This will be so fun.” Thank the heavens for those who truly enjoy changing things up. They often see the benefit of doing things differently, like learning new stuff and have a view that if you aren’t changing then you aren’t keeping ahead of the pack. They are not just early adopters; they are flexible, open minded and adventurous.
  • “My mouth says yes but the rest of me says no way.” Most people fit into this category. They want to be good sports and have some appreciation for the rationale for change but they struggle mightily to get comfortable with it. They would rather stay in their comfort zones and don’t like the unsteadiness that comes with doing new things. They take one step forward and two steps back as they slowly inch themselves towards inevitable disruption.
  • “Please leave me alone.” If I just ignore this, maybe it will go away. These are often more introverted folks who focus on self mastery. Imposed changes upset their ecosystems and they can become semi-paralyzed. They keep doing their work but resist the change until they realize there is no choice.

As you can see, some people are more cautious or uncomfortable with change. Others can’t get enough of it while some prefer to ignore it altogether. Some people have a different rational opinion while others are just emotional spewers. As leaders, we are quick to lump everyone together and label it resistance but that isn’t accurate. Simpler, yes, but not correct.

If we see everyone as resistant, we will just use the hammer. But we can’t take out 20 different tools so we don’t just see all those nails. I suggest that leaders do three things across the board that will address the needs of this cast of characters.

  • Acknowledge differences right up front. You are launching a new organization structure. In your initial communications (and for the first few months of implementation) speak about the range of reactions you expect from enthusiasm to skepticism to complete disagreement. Tell the staff there is room for all these emotions because each person has a unique way of integrating new behaviors and arrangements. That’s okay. You want people to remain professional and civil so any venting or feedback needs to be delivered with positive intentions of supporting the movement forward. We humans want to know that we are not invisible; that our thoughts or feelings are heard. Signal that you do and you will hear them.
  • Explain the Why repeatedly. Most leaders breeze over this in favor of getting into the What details. Sure, each of us wants to know What is changing for me. But we are more likely to withstand the discomfort of change if we have a clear understanding about Why we are being asked to do this. (“Because I said so” does not work well with adults.) If the leader lays out what threats or challenges or opportunities are at the door and Why we need to act now, most people will agree even if they might disagree on this specific plan.
  • Don’t tolerate saboteurs. There will always be a small group of people who will act badly to undermine the success of the change effort. It might look passive aggressive or overt. It might be an individual or an angry cabal. We all know who those folks are and we have difficulty gauging how much real power they have to tear things apart. But we know we can’t stand being in the same room with them. As leaders, we must cut these people off. They need to know they must play nice or else. And you need to follow through on the “or else”. This is when a hammer is appropriate.

We can’t be all things to all people in our organizations. But we can give voice to the normal, human responses to change. It doesn’t matter if I’m slow as molasses and grumpy and you are quick and happy about it. In the end, the change will take place. It’s just that some of us will get there sooner and with less commotion than the rest of us.

What’s Wrong With A New Leader Making Massive Changes Immediately?

All conventional wisdom suggests that when a new leader is hired to make significant changes, s/he must be thoughtful, strategic and measured. The mandate for change must be clearly understood by the entire organization, even if there are pockets of resistance. The leader must understand that change does not occur “because I said so” but rather through the engagement of those whose lives are going to be altered (supporters and naysayers). Real organizational change that gets fully implemented can only happen when the leader forms productive alliances and relationships with key constituents and influencers. This requires loads of listening and learning about this operation the leader has now been asked to lead.

Too often, however, new leaders charge full steam ahead thinking that ramping up in the first 100 days only means taking urgent action. A more careful read of all the best literature (see Michael Watkins) states very clearly that a balance between learning the culture, people and key relationships with some early winning actions is the key to success. After all, pronouncing a slew of directives will usually leave the leader with few who will follow orders. Without building those connections early on, all subsequent edicts will be met with (at best) skepticism or (worse) resistance. Et voila: no change.

So rather than emulating the mistakes of the person who currently occupies the Oval Office, here are some recommendations for new leaders brought in to make changes.

  • Communicate a compelling mandate. Most new CEOs have been handed a very specific agenda by the board; such as improve profits, weed out the under achieving products and people, grow or prepare the business for an IPO. Staff may not be aware of these concerns so early communications that balance what needs to be fixed with a desired better future need to occur. Big meetings, small gatherings, one on ones. Lots of explaining in hopes of gaining early support for the new direction.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Each organization is so unique even if they all have marketing, finance, R&D and all the other disciplines. The culture, how things formally and informally get done, the cliques, the early adapters, the institutional wisdom, the pent up potential, the wisest advisors, the bad pennies, the antiquated systems, the hiring practices, the compliance parameters….all of it must be absorbed. This doesn’t happen in the first 3 months. It can take 6-12 months depending on the size of the organization. But appreciating what is before making a bunch of changes is essential to being a credible leader.
  • Base decisions on data. In organizations there can be “felt” needs and “actual” needs. Both are valid but in the end the leader must see the data to assess the need for making changes. Feelings can be a warning sign of problems but are not sufficient for decision making. The leader will be seen as erratic if s/he makes emotional or impulsive decisions.
  • Select 2-3 early wins. Bite off small pieces that are doable out of the gate. You may telegraph that a big change is coming but start with something that has a high probability of success. Even better, pick something that staff would feel is a good thing rather than a threat. It could be some technical training that hasn’t been provided but most want that dovetails with that something bigger down the road. It could be eliminating a low performing product line and reassigning those resources. Pick a no-brainer or two.
  • Engage staff support for change. Form an extended leadership council that helps to shape, lead and implement the bigger initiatives. Tap the informal leaders lower in the organization for key roles in the change efforts. Remove a stinker or two that no leader before you had the guts to do to gain staff admiration. Conduct ongoing conversations with all levels of staff to uncover the biggest pains and empower them to fix it. In short, make the change agenda “our” agenda rather than yours.
  • Take the long view. The most sustainable and high impact changes in an organization take place over an extended period of time. It is important to understand the pieces of the journey, how it will effect the staff, what is flexible or not and how fast you need to move. Oh, and there is the rest of the business to run while the changes are afoot so the best laid plans usually get altered. Not a sprint.

There isn’t a high performing professional who takes a new leadership role who doesn’t want to come out of the gate raring to make stuff happen. I wish I could say that I have followed my own advice to a tee but I seem to have a habit of wanting to “add value” immediately. And by “add value” I mean “proving how smart you were to hire me because I can really get great shit done quickly.”  And by that I really mean that I have to prove to myself  (and others) that I am going to be great at this job. We all need to understand that we are adding immeasurable value by taking the time to cultivate good connections in the organization even if it doesn’t look like a flurry of activity. Activity and orders do not equal effective leadership nor is it a winning formula for facilitating change.

So if you are a new leader who is expected to make some significant changes, take a breath and get to know the people and how things work. You will gain much more traction, support and respect for whatever happens next.

If You Aren’t Learning You Are Getting Stale

Remember how you felt as an incoming college freshman? Not the “I just got out of the jail my parents call home and now I’m ready to cut loose” part of it. And not the “Oh my gosh, everyone here is so much smarter than I am even though I was number 3 in my high school graduating class”. Instead, do you remember the thrill of taking classes on subjects that you knew nothing about or more advanced classes on things you already had some experience with? Can you recall those moments of discovery that opened your mind to new ways of thinking that didn’t require the assistance of drugs?

Curiosity, exploration, making brain space for new topics or ideas, having more questions than answers and a sense of fascination are traits we don’t usually discuss when we think about leadership. We focus more on grown up characteristics like results oriented, decisive, team developer and accountability. We no longer look for or value more childlike or adolescent wonder that accompanies discovery. But we should.

As leaders (and colleagues) we could all use a heavy dose of that freshman feeling of a kid in the candy shop of learning. Or even less sophisticated, the four year’s relentless “why, why, why”. That insatiable quest to understand so many mysteries fades as we age and acquire experience with the world and our chosen professions. We are focused on mastery so we hone skills and thinking in specific areas which can limit our curiosity. This is a normal developmental stage and it is quite useful. But I believe that if we could keep some part of our brains supple enough to remain curious then we would be better leaders, more inventive, greater collaborators and our organizations would benefit.

When was the last time that you:

  • Asked someone from another department to explain in detail some aspect of his/her work?
  • Spoke with someone at length who comes from a completely different walk of life than you do?
  • Invited someone with a point of view that is the exact opposite of yours to describe how he/she arrived at this idea?
  • Wandered into an operational space of your company and asked for a tour or explanation of the services?
  • Spent time being trained by a staff person many levels below you?
  • Admitted to a colleague that you don’t fully understand some aspect of the work you share?
  • Raised a question in a team setting that you feared might make you sound stupid?

We all arrive at a point in our careers, roles or organizations when we believe we always must demonstrate mastery and that to do otherwise is a sign of weakness or ignorance. It is true that the most experienced among us are amazing resources. But it is also true that we envy people who are excited about something new they have learned about or uncovered. In that case, I recommend that we all try to develop both aspects. We will, in fact, keep accumulating experiences that will lead to excellence in our work. At the same time we can remain open to new: topics, ways of thinking, adventures and people.

Re-engage yourself as a learner and try some of these things:

  • Read books that are not the usual suspects; outside your discipline, recommended by an outlier, just because
  • Visit parts of your organization that you don’t know much about or that you always think of as the slow down in the system and ask for a walk through and explanation of the processes
  • Ask only questions in some meetings to gain a deeper understanding of people’s thought processes and assumptions
  • Have a conversation with someone you struggle with. Just try to get to know him/her as a person
  • Take a class on a more right-brain topic
  • Probe your own assumptions more deeply. Ask yourself if something you believe is too rigid or out of date. Explore the latest thinking on the topic and then give yourself permission to change your mind
  • Take the role of devil’s advocate to challenge the team’s business-as-usual solutions
  • Use art forms (visual, music, writing etc) to switch brain gears to shake up well-grooved thought patterns
  • Find a worthy contrarian in your sphere who you can spar with routinely

I never liked that Bible passage about “when I was a child I thought as a child but when I became a man I put all those childish ways behind me”. It always struck me as terribly sad and unfortunate. We need to preserve and nurture aspects of childish thinking. We need to remain curious, to ask why, to see wonder all around and to greet new things and people with enthusiasm. Without that sense of awe we lull ourselves into thinking there is nothing left to learn. Once we stop learning we become rusty or arrogant or predictable or boring. Those traits make us less valuable to our colleagues and the organizations we serve.

So think back to your best college professor or class. Remember how exciting it was to have your mind blown. Remember that learning is exhilarating. I hope you were as lucky as I was in college to find a professor or two who taught me how to learn. In retrospect I realize that was the most valuable subject I encountered.


Leaders: This is What the Staff Wants

It’s not that complicated, really, to understand and deliver what employees want from their leaders. I boil it down to just three things: truthful and open communications, respect for what they professionally and personally bring to the party and opportunities to use and expand upon what they know. If staff experienced this nearly every day there would be so much less noise and much more productivity.

The research on this has not moved an inch in a couple decades. It’s not about the generations or digital explosion or globalization or any other trendy topic. It’s all about people and work and relationships and human value. No one rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, “I can’t wait to get to work so I can be disrespected and under utilized and told a pack of lies! I do my best work under these conditions.” Beyond financial security (which is a big one) we all hope to grow in skills, competence, confidence and position in our jobs. Again, not complicated and not news.

But for too many of us our organizations are run by people who aren’t able to fulfill these very basic requirements. And as leaders, we struggle much more than we need to on these dimensions.

Communication. The majority of leaders work hard to provide timely information to the staff. They try to balance the good and bad news while remaining focused and inspiring. This goes off the rails in a few common ways.

  • Information flow is all over the map. A small inner circle may be privy to closely held (and difficult) information that seeps out into the organization in uncontrolled ways. This means that some people know things early and incompletely while others are in the dark. Rumors foment, anticipatory responses get prepared, passive aggressive power grabs ensue. Conversely information is held so tightly that only a small portion of it ever gets communicated. In other words, there isn’t a plan in place.
  • Erring on the side of too much or too little. There are executives who value a strategy of complete transparency and communicate often, early and in full. Most employees prefer this approach but then find themselves inundated with TMI. They lose focus or get anxious and don’t know how to digest everything. They wish for some judicious editing. Other leaders believe that everything is too confidential to share openly. This leaves staff very uninformed which breeds suspicion and mistrust.
  • Limited one on one contact. When an employee has limited access to his/her boss in the first place and then there are no quarterly check ins or private annual reviews, the disappointment can lead to disengagement. Add to that the continuous cancellation of update meetings and it is a bad recipe. The employee has prepared for those precious few minutes and when they are bumped from the schedule s/he can feel only one thing: insignificant. Oh, and maybe pissed off.

Respect. See me! Value me! Especially if I am different than you are. That’s what employees want. But here is what they usually get instead.

  • Benign disregard. Someone gets hired because of some great skills that no one else has and then it’s as if amnesia hits the manager because that person is rarely tapped to provide that expertise. Or women and people of color are served up a daily dose of micro aggressions that make them feel invisible and unimportant. Or who you know matters more than what you know and do. I could go on, but the point is a whole set of small jabs that add up to big and painful feelings.
  • Overt disrespect. Most work is accomplished through team work or collaboration but many leaders will take full credit for the results. Tearing down someone in public, offering open support but privately preventing a promotion or pitting staff members against each other are all ways that employees feel hostile disrespect.
  • Differences. In spite of some good intentions, most leaders continue to struggle with people who are different. Older white men did not ascend in a world filled with working women or professionals of color. Unconscious deference to other white men is still the default so to be fully respected if you are different than those in power still sucks.

Utilize. The number one reason people leave organizations is that they feel under utilized and see no opportunities for growth. This has been true for 2-3 decades and I don’t see this changing much. There are fancy, complicated HR strategies and initiatives in many companies to reverse this trend but there is more work to be done.

  • Bench sitting. In the best companies staff get told once or twice a year how they are performing and what their future looks like. Plans are made for new jobs or projects but most of that is for naught. When are you going to call me in? When do I get to play? You promised! Right idea but very poor follow through.
  • No resources. Most companies aspire to develop talent in all sorts of ways but when the rubber hits the road they can’t find the resources. Either development budgets are cut or HR staff is overwhelmed or senior leaders are maxed out on mentoring or training is at your own expense. When belts get tightened, staff growth programs are cut while exec bonuses are reduced by a percent or two. Message received loud and clear.
  • Risk averse. Someone is warming up on deck and ready to take the plunge but senior leaders pull back for fear of failure. In spite of promises and good supervision and consensus that someone can step up, leaders hold too much control by sticking with the tried and true ones. Staff stop striving for new roles because they doubt it will happen or they get aggressively competitive to dethrone and take down the regulars.

These are all examples of ordinary human behavior…not evil incarnate. We all have a groove and we get comfortable in that groove. Doing a better job at just one of these things means stretching ourselves. Some days we can make the effort while other days we snap back to our usual habits. But here’s the problem on both sides of the table with that. If the leader listens better on Monday and Tuesday but the rest of the week reverts to being less attentive, the employee will feel hopeful and then disappointed. Rinse, repeat. Pretty soon the leader will stop altogether and the employee will feel duped and will disengage more completely. False hope is a bitch. So what is the fix?

Leaders, pick one of these three things (communication, respect, utilization). Then pick one behavior you are confident won’t be too hard for you. Let’s say, only cancel an employee meeting if there is an emergency. Otherwise, you will keep all staff appointments (or at least 70%). Ask your assistant to monitor this for you and help you achieve your goal. Commit to a three month trial period. If you find at the end of that time that a) you feel these meetings are worthless or b) you do not see improved engagement or productivity from your staff, then reevaluate the process or your communication style. But I’m fairly certain that you will derive any/all of these things from ongoing communication with your staff: deeper knowledge of what and how well they are doing, who the gems are in your group, who has more to offer than you thought, insights about those who are struggling, more opportunities for you to delegate stuff, new ideas, better sense of how your team is functioning as a whole. That’s a big bang for the buck if you ask me.

And staff, keep insisting on getting these basic needs met. Keep your leaders challenged to do the right thing.


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