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Posts from the ‘Organizations’ Category

Our Personal Stories Show Up at Work

We all work hard to look great from the outside. We put on our best face. We dress the part. We speak our well rehearsed lines. We play our parts with Meryl Streep perfection. The end result is one of two things. We conform to look remarkably similar to others in our group; function, status, company, gender, ethnicity, profession. Or we play against type in very predictable ways to become the “odd duck”; the one that doesn’t fit neatly into one group identity. Both paths are the manifestation of a personal decision each of us make about what aspects of ourselves we are willing to reveal at work.

When we show up at work we tuck away some of our truest nature. In spite of our best efforts, however, our life stories appear in mostly unconscious ways. Our life experiences surface in our daily interactions at the office.  And that’s where the interesting and complicated stuff really happens.

My first professional job after grad school was as a school social worker. I had always wanted to work with children. I was young and inexperienced but I did my best to help these elementary aged kids feel good about themselves, interact in productive ways and solve conflicts with their friends. Each day I came home with another piece of my heart tugged at. Their home lives were less than ideal and they struggled with the school work. But when they were alone with me it was clear all they wanted was kindness. I wanted to hug them or adopt them. When I became pregnant I knew I had to shift gears. I couldn’t work with kids anymore. My heart was too open to their vulnerability to be helpful. It would take several more years before I understood that I saw myself in each child. Their stories were versions of my own story and I couldn’t separate the two. But while I was in that job my thinking was that the system was a mess, the families were too broken and that I was only one small cog in these kids’ lives. I had externalized the reasons for my pulling away.

Fast forward fifteen years when I was a management consultant. I loved the work with our clients and felt an affinity with my colleagues. I was learning a lot and contributing a lot. I helped to build new services and established long term relationships with key clients. I was grateful that my boss was confident in my work and that he rewarded me so generously. It wasn’t until I had moved on to a bigger firm with a more distant boss and more competitive colleagues that I fully appreciated the work and atmosphere of my previous job. My old boss reminded me of my supportive father and that allowed me to be my best self with our clients. I worked from a self-assured-I-got-this space. Again, my conscious thoughts at the time were I’m excited about this work and I like working with these people.

Two different stops on my journey. Two moments when parts of my story appeared in only slightly conscious ways. I didn’t walk into work each day thinking, “Geez, this is tapping into my wounded child or my well loved child.” No, I was usually thinking that I needed to act like I knew what I was doing! My thoughts and actions were dedicated to the great, if not Oscar worthy, performance I needed to exhibit.

To further the conversation from my last post about self awareness, if we want to do our best work we have to reflect on our personal stories and be mindful about how they pop up in unexpected ways. If we don’t make that effort so many things can go wrong.

Going back to my beloved consulting firm, it became apparent at some point that my boss was going to sit back more and turn over more responsibility to one of us. I was a Senior Vice President and my boss was thrilled with my work. But….his son was one of my colleagues. He was much younger with much less experience and didn’t always use good judgment. I began to read the tea leaves and figured that blood was going to win the day. I found myself sniping at my colleague and distancing from my boss. I tried to keep my cool but I knew that I was jealous and felt rejected. All my wonderful feelings about the company, my boss and my peers went south very quickly. I was filled with righteous indignation and other very attractive beliefs.

An old story of mine was being recreated and unfolding before my eyes. My brother was getting picked over me…again. My brother was the golden child and I was always in second place. Had I been aware that familiar dynamics were set off then I would have been able to separate these two stories, behave better and maintain my positive feelings about that job. That was my part in our little drama. You won’t believe what was triggered for my boss and colleague!

My boss took me out for lunch to confirm what I already knew…that he was going to turn things over to his son. With tears streaming down his face he declared, “My head knows that you are more qualified and ready to take over. But I always assumed that I was building the business so my son would be secure. I wish he was more mature. I wish he was smarter. I wish I trusted him. I’ll just have to stay involved longer so he doesn’t destroy everything we’ve accomplished.” Then he told me how hard it is to prop up his son when his daughter is the one who really shines.

Wait, wait. There’s more. The son shared countless stories with me about how hard it was to get his father’s praise. He always felt in competition with his sister for daddy’s approval. She was the smart one who went to the fancy college while junior hadn’t finished college at all. The three of them were locked in their own little drama and I was just an actor starring in the role of beloved daughter in their family story! Oy vey!

So, I was reacting out of my old story while my boss was trying to resolve one of his longstanding conflicts while his son was still looking for daddy’s attention by shoving me aside which played into my hand just fine because I was rejecting all of them before they had a chance to not pick me.

Phew! Did you get all that? There was increased tension amongst the three of us while we continued to work together very productively. Our historical reenactments never interferred with the work but our relationships suffered. We never had more straightforward and vulnerable conversations to preserve or strengthen our connections. As much as we revealed to each other, nothing was resolved. It just hung in the air.

This is a very typical story. It happens many times everyday for all of us at work. If you do the math, it boggles the mind. Each of us walks around with scores of stories bumping into a couple dozen people everyday who have their own boatload of stories. The mash-up of these hidden stories certainly makes for some very complicated dynamics and relationships. It’s a wonder that we are able to rise above it to get some great stuff done.

So I have two suggestions for you. One, develop a habit of prodding yourself to be introspective. When something goes wrong in a conversation walk away and ask “Does this feel familiar? Who does this person remind me of? How did that talk make me feel?” If you notice that this is an old tape being replayed, then separate your past from your present and try to have a better/cleaner discussion. Two, when you walk away from a meeting and wonder “what the hell just happened?”, accept that multiple stories were flying around the room creating a meta-dialogue that does not sync up with the videotape playback.

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Join The Movement To Dump Annual Appraisals

Sometimes I think I’m all alone in the wilderness or part of the large and vocal chorus of complainers. These days I’m seeing many kindred spirits who are taking a bold stance when it comes to debunking the value of annual or semi-annual performance reviews. Some companies are even going so far as to eliminate them entirely. Hip hip hooray! Be the first on your block to join the movement.

Here is a great summary of what is happening and a strong point of view about what replaces this appraisal process from one of my colleagues in the UK.

Speaking as someone who was in charge of talent and performance as well as a consultant on the topic, here is what I have observed.

  • I haven’t heard anyone say “Gee, my review was so valuable.” Instead I hear a steady stream of complaints. From managers it is about the time suck and imperfect electronic system and drudgery of the entire process. From employees it is about how long it has been since their managers actually completed the form and the mandatory discussion and their disagreement with the numerical rating they received and their complaints about the one minor critical piece of feedback they received. In short, supervisors and employees agree that the value derived from these reviews is negligible.
  • In theory, these reviews are for development, assigning merit (sic. bonuses), creating the succession plans and differentiating between high and low performers. In reality, not so much. Listen, go back 20 years ago and there was no formal way to do any of these things. Most organizations were over and under valuing employees because they had no hard data. As the cottage industry grew around performance reviews (I can’t even imagine the billions!) companies were promised that this metrics-driven process would be the Holy Grail of an integrated “talent management” system. And who doesn’t want to focus on talent? Over time, I saw more bells and whistles added to the process. In the real world, low performers have years of glowing reviews and high performers with high ratings are not landing on the succession list. “She’s not ready yet. Let’s open an external search.” The gap between what is entered into the electronic system and how decisions about talent are made is wider than you think.
  • Countless hours are spent to create the 50 questions that can be used across all disciplines so the form can be a one size fits all. This is pure folly. Is it part of everyone’s job description to “think strategically” or “run the business as if it was your own” or “develop your people”? What about a highly technical individual contributor or someone without decision making authority or a writer? I remember all too well the complaints around the building when I was tasked to insist that everyone use the same form. Leaving an item blank wasn’t an option either because the system wouldn’t let you proceed to the next page until you had filled in every box. And don’t even get me started on 50 questions! I know of some companies that tried to solve this one-size problem by creating a dozen different forms: departments, disciplines, level, etc. Again, really???
  • Psychometricians extol the virtues of a 5-point rating scale. In the real world, managers default to 3’s and employees are incensed with anything less than a 5 and any review with 1’s and 2’s is wrong on so many levels. So where is the meaning and value in these numbers? I can answer that. They look great on the spreadsheets that HR and finance create to determine merit increases and bonuses and stock options. But if you ask if those numbers accurately reflect the performance and/or value of the employee (especially when compared to all folks with the same rating) the answer is no way. On the surface these ratings are expedient. In reality people are given (or not given) increases and promotions and bonuses on criteria that don’t appear anywhere on this appraisal. Those decisions are based on equally subjective anecdotes and “gut feelings.”

All of this is to say that we have come full circle. If organizations were too lax about a formal, standardized and fair way to assess staff performance 20 years ago, then all the fixes put into place have become over engineered, too generic and meaningless. Not to mention a total burden on everyone.

Some companies are now using a quarterly check-in conversation instead. This means that once a quarter managers have a free form discussion with their direct reports to cover a range of performance and developmental topics. From everything I see and hear, this method is far preferable to the outdated annual appraisal. It’s a good start.

But my concern about this new structure of talk-once-a-quarter is that managers will believe that is enough. To speak with your boss in any depth only once every three months is a problem. In an ideal world managers are offering ongoing feedback, touching base frequently (2-3 times a month), finding challenging assignments routinely and having casual chats by the coffee pot.

If all these systems and conversations are intended to develop the talent (or counsel people out) in the organization then constant interactions are the best way to achieve that. Yes, I know this means learning how to communicate effectively enough. Yes, I know this means having some tough conversations more often than desired. Yes, I know this means you can’t do this via text or email. Yes, I know this means having lots of human contact.

Oh well. “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”

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Is Fear Holding You Back?

“I’ve got to deliver some hard messages to my direct report and it’s been keeping me awake at night.” “The CEO is so out of touch but no one has the guts to sit him down.” “I’m so worried that my boss is unhappy with my work that I’m down to 4 hours of sleep.” “One of my peers is so competitive and manipulative that I’m certain our boss is hanging on his every word.” “The CEO has talked to me about a significant promotion. It’s clear she is happy with my results so far. I don’t know if I should take the new job because I’m not sure I have what it takes.”

All real statements from male and female clients in the past two months. All executives in their organizations. All star performers. All fearful. And I’m certain it has nothing to do with Halloween or climate change or arachnophobia. So I put on my GetReal thinking cap to sort out what is happening here.

Let me unpack what fear is all about first. Fear is incredibly useful to us human beings. It signals that danger is imminent and we should get ready to fight or flee. We experience it in our bodies: our guts churn, our hearts race, our muscles tense, our adrenalin kicks in and our brains craft protective strategies with lightening speed. Excellent. But what if we have exaggerated the potential harm? What if we have told ourselves a story that may not be grounded in the facts on the ground? What if this thing we call fear is actually something else? What if our fear is nothing more than anxiety and self doubt run amok?

When we are laying awake at night ruminating about a tough conversation, rehearsing it endlessly in our minds, we are sending a message to our whole being. “I’m nervous. I might screw this up. Someone’s career is on the line. I don’t want to hurt someone. There are some perfect words (if only I could find them!) I can use to make the situation less awful. I hate this shit!”. We toss and turn and get out of bed and decide we’ll wait and see if this person improves without having to intervene. Our physical homeostasis returns to normal once we have removed the object of our anxiety and life goes on. Phew!

But this is wrong on so many levels. Let me count the ways.

  • The staff person won’t perform better without direct feedback. Nothing will change.
  • Your reputation as a leader will suffer. Everyone knows this person isn’t living up to expectations and it is your job to take care of this. When you don’t do that, people see you as weak/not courageous/not doing your job/ineffective.
  • Your boss won’t be pleased either. See above.
  • You will have let your fears and anxieties rule your actions so the criticism you receive will be warranted.

In Get Real parlance, you wanted the big job so put on your big boy/girl panties and get over yourself. Every day there are encounters that will bump up against what your fears. It is your personal responsibility to stare those down and move past your paralysis to take the actions the organization needs you to take.

Here are some things to think about.

  • Most fears are simply our insecurities. When your brain and body go into overdrive in hopes of running screaming from the room, take a deep breath or two and start a different train of thought. Ask yourself, am I scared or just nervous? How do I think I might mess this up? Can I remember any past experiences that provide insight into why I’ve made such a big deal out of this? What happened to lock me up so much? How can I bring this into perspective? What self doubt do I need to examine?
  • Maybe now is the time to act differently. In previous roles you might have been given a pass but once you are a senior leader you need to step up. Avoidance is not a long term strategy. If you are ready to make some changes, reach out for help. A trusted mentor or confidante or an outside consultant can be very helpful.
  • You need to get out of your own way. You are your worst enemy when it comes to these self doubts. It is probable that people around you have great confidence in you but part of you isn’t buying that. Absorb the kudos and let that inform your self talk. You will still need to do #1 and #2 above but it would help if you let the good stuff in to counter-balance your negativity.
  • The longer you let your fears and anxieties win, the shorter your ascent. I have seen more executives than I care to remember be removed from companies because they were (pick one) conflict/risk averse or unable to address tough decisions or performance issues or immobilized by insecurities. This type of behavior harms the company performance and the morale and few boards put up with this indefinitely.

So far so good. But what about when the stakes are much higher and there is some legitimate reason to be truly fearful? What about when you need to give the CEO some critical feedback (I refuse to call it “opportunities for growth”. Call it what it is!) because it is part of your job (as the legal counsel or head of Human Resources or the CFO) to rein in some poor behavior before it hurts the company?  Here’s what the fear sounds like in our heads. “This could be a career limiting move. Why isn’t the board doing this? Why does it have to be me? Why aren’t my colleagues doing this? Maybe an outside consultant should deliver the message.” Basically we say to ourselves “anyone but me”. It takes a mix of courage, tact and selflessness to have this conversation. It must be framed in your mind and in your words as looking out for the best interests of the organization. It must not be an indictment. It must be behaviorally specific and solutions focused. It must be direct, brief and neutrally worded. It must be followed up some days later with another brief conversation to explore what the CEO is thinking now that s/he has absorbed the information and to offer your support. I’m not going to lie, it’s a daunting assignment and it could go very wrong for you. But I have observed many CEOs get initially very defensive and angry at the messenger only to be reasonable and grateful after some time to mull it over. Done well it can be a career enhancing move.

What I’m saying is that lots of moments at work will elicit fear, anxiety and self doubt. And some of those moments are absolutely scary. But most of them are about our own insecurities and desires to avoid conflict or discomfort. It’s hard to imagine effective leadership without courage, a backbone and the slaying of your dragons.

So look in the mirror and have a serious talk.

Going Native: When New, Smart Staff Join The Cult(ure)

You’ve seen this movie dozens of times. There is an opening for a key position in your company and a small group of decision makers get together to discuss what they are looking for in a new hire. “Someone with unique skills so we can upgrade the role.” “Someone from the outside for a fresh set of eyes on the situation.” “Someone who can support a culture change.” “Someone who won’t be sucked into the morass around here. Someone who is tougher than all the crazy.” Such high hopes. Such unrealistic expectations.

Human beings are pack animals. We require connection. Drop a new person into the middle of a herd and it will be the herd that changes the spots of the loner, not the other way around. In short order the new member will act, talk and think like the natives. Even if New One retains some individual identity and separateness, the gravitational pull to the pack will be powerful to resist. In time those who hired New One are disappointed, New One is frustrated but the herd is absolutely ecstatic.

So does our nature make this transformation inevitable? Probably. But if we are trying to break down these internal cults(ures) how can bringing in new people minimize this phenomenon? It’s a reasonable strategy, a rational idea and one that is used repeatedly. So how can we make this work well enough?

  • Deeply understand your context. We can all sit around and bitch about this person and that department and the “off the reservation” sub-group but this is utterly unproductive. It does not take a 360 view of the work environment: where are the structural roadblocks, what has set off intra-group friction, what is the long term damage from keeping ineffective leaders and staff in their roles, what behaviors have gone unchecked for ages. In other words, what is the soup everyone is swimming in? Venting about this or that is not the same as a cold hard look at all the contributing factors to the negative forces in the culture.
  • Culture change is a team sport that starts at the top. To expect a new hire (even at the executive level) to perform a miracle that hasn’t already occurred is just plain cra-cra. Although some of us disguise ourselves as super heroes, that is just make believe. It is up to the CEO and executive team to determine what the culture needs to be and then demonstrate that consistently every day. No New One can create this kind of change. I have written about this many times here before so I won’t belabor the point again.
  • Cult members have to be taken to the woodshed. Bit by bit, person by person, the leaders have to engage every bad player in some serious conversations. These negative forces have been allowed to flourish because of denial, the heavy lifting involved, the potential (but short term) backlash and hoping it will just resolve on its own. New One is not the right person for this task. The leaders need to try deprogramming cult members, reprogramming them or showing them the door. The ringleaders usually need to exit first and then it becomes more apparent how devoted or brainwashed the followers are. Devotees will take up the banner and fill the leadership void, still believing in the cause. They will need to go too. It is the brainwashed that can be reformed but it is unlikely they will ever perform up to full capacity. They have lost their safe zone and will be viewed as damaged goods. Long story short (this weeding out can take months or years), current leaders must root out the stinkers before bringing New One on board.
  • Set the stage for success. If the current leadership takes the actions suggested above and sends the message to the organization that it is a new day, the next steps are about creating a receptivity for the New One. This goes way beyond onboarding (whatever the hell that means these days!). I’m talking about a series of group and individual communications over several months from the executives actively recruiting staff to participate in the new, next chapter of the organization’s growth. It is not about New One; it is about existing staff engaging in the future direction. It is making some internal staff changes including new roles and new teams and new energy. When New One arrives on the scene s/he is met with curiosity and cautious optimism rather than bait as a new cult recruit.

This is not a perfect recipe but it will mitigate the overwhelming power and urge to go native. It is easier to blend in and go with the flow rather than to swim upstream. There is some comfort and camaraderie in the herd and New One will feel welcomed and less isolated. This makes it possible to be lulled into the group’s perspective on the “way things ought to be run around here”. Those that hired New One wonder how such a smart, forward thinking person could get so stupid so fast. It is not stupidity. It is just being human.

Leaders and well intentioned colleagues: help New One navigate the landscape by clearing out the weeds, bad apples and boulders. Get external consulting help to have that brutally honest look at how messed up things are before thinking there is some caped crusader who can save the day.



Is There Room For Compassion In The Workplace?

Everyday there are new stories or research reported about the insanity of the workplace and the unethical behavior of executives. Everyone is effected by this: workers, consumers, companies, boards, industry sectors, well intentioned executives. The deterioration of honesty, moral compasses and just plain human decency has torn away at the very essence of so many corporate settings. So we are now living in a world where we go to work each morning not trusting our leaders or colleagues, come home to the evening news where we don’t trust our political leaders, where our neighbors settle common disputes with lawsuits and our children are learning all about not being a bully.

This is absolutely insane. We live on the dark side now and no amount of meditation or exercise can rid us of the stress of these types of environments. In spite of the limited impact of movements to stop climate change or gun violence or economic fairness, I’m thinking that we need to try a workplace movement. How about we make room for compassion at work? How about if we treated each individual with an open mind, respect and consideration? You know, what if we all behaved like mensches? Translation: “An upright, honorable, decent person. Someone of consequence; someone to emulate; of noble character. A personification of worth and dignity, totally trustworthy. Come on, act like a mensch. Now there’s a mensch!” (Leo Rosten)

Let’s get back to being decent human beings who care about each other. Is this so much to ask for? How hard could it be? (said with proper upturned hands, a shoulder shrug and a tone of “come on people”)

Let’s go through the back door to explore this.

  • What devastating impact would it have on profits, competition, results or overall company performance if executives and staff behaved with just a modest amount of human kindness?
  • What is the downside to a corporate culture that actually lives by all those fancy (sic. no-brainer-obvious-ways-of-interacting-with-your-colleagues) values statements embossed on the back of employee ID cards?
  • What harm is created by listening to a colleague’s frustrations or worries or unusual circumstances that impede giving their best everyday?
  • What disaster would befall a CEO who acted with integrity, fairness, respect and concern for the staff? How would this be construed as a career limiting stance?
  • How much time and effort would be taken away from the “important stuff” to smile as you pass people in the hall or congratulate someone on a successful project or ask someone to offer their expertise about something you are working on or reach out to someone who has been laid off and wish them the best?

I mean, really?

I’m not talking kumbaya here. Just good manners. But somewhere between 5 years old (when we learned all those proper behaviors) and 40 years old (when we have been re-socialized) we lost our humanity. Corporate settings have become so cutthroat, internally competitive, deceitful and relentless that even good players have been transformed. Survival of the fittest prevails.

There are mensches all around the building but few are in positions of influence or power.They are the confidantes, mentors and Yodas who do their best work behind closed doors in one-on-one discussions. They listen, guide, offer perspective and send people back out into the lion’s den. When someone needs a fix more frequently than every 4-6 months the mensch will gently inquire about what will make the person happy. It becomes an inevitable discussion. What a mensch can do: offer some individual relief and respect. What a mensch can’t do: change the system.

Research reveals that we return smiles when offered to us, that we get a spring in our step when we are thanked or praised, that we work harder and better when we are positively acknowledged. Conversely when we are treated like shit, we will return that favor too.

My guidance here is very simple. If each of us walked into work each day and committed to just 2-3 acts of human kindness that would start the ripples of a bigger change. We feel better about ourselves, we start to receive better treatment from our colleagues and we make more valuable contributions to the company. These are small moments that add up over time.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not seeing who losses if we make room for compassion at work. Channeling my best yiddish accent: Try it! It couldn’t hoit!

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The Board, The Budget, The CEO and Everyone Else

I was recently asked, again, what are the traits of a great CEO. After my instant blast, “The anti-Trump”, I offered a more measured response. “It depends if you are on the board or a member of the organization. If you are on the board you are riveted on a track record of financial results and growth. If you work for the company you want a CEO who isn’t a slave to quarterly results and is willing to take a long view of success. Better still, a CEO with a fundamental belief that without taking care of the talent, the company will never be great. And therein lies the rub. To illustrate this divide I turn to that beloved annual event: budget planning.

Most companies are finalizing their budgets now. For those of you who don’t sit in on those executive meetings, let me tell you how this discussion goes.

CEO: If we are going to show the growth the board needs in ’16 we are going to have to make some tough decisions. Let’s look at our G&A expenses and make some cuts.

Exec 1: Don’t forget we are launching New Product ABC in the 2nd quarter next year. We’ll need enough resources to get that up and running. NewPro will account for a 15% bump in revenues.

Exec 2: My group is already running lean and mean. I can’t imagine taking another hit and being able to function.

Exec 3: There is already a morale problem around here. I’m worried that more cuts will cause us to lose our superstars.

Exec 4: I suggest that rather than take our usual “cut approach” that we should take a “stop projects with no ROI” approach. If we stopped pouring people and money into bets or products that aren’t paying off we could get to cost containment in less painful ways.

Exec 5: That’s all fine and good but we haven’t let Project XYZ work it’s magic yet. It would be too soon to pull the plug.

CEO: Here’s what I want. Everyone bring in your plan to cut expenses by 10%. Do it however you want to but keep in mind that headcount is the biggest ticket.

End of discussion. No coordinated, analytic, holistic, thoughtful conversation. Just a number for each executive to come up with. Talking about unprofitable products or top performers or the morale or the unintended consequences of continuous reductions rarely happens for more than a moment. All eyes must stay focused on “shareholder value”. Or as the rest of us know it as “slash and burn” or “here we go again” or “WTF”.

To be clear, all boards, executives and staffs want to be profitable and successful. But there seems to be only one formula used to get there. Here are a few radical but doable ideas to continue to control expenses without creating such damage to the morale or culture of the place.

  • Control executive compensation. Yep, I’ve said it. If boards were disciplined about (or not friends with) executive salaries just imagine the millions of dollars in cost containment? Absolutely biggest ticket in the company and the most untouched in every annual budget discussion. Reduce merit increases and bonuses for the executive team and you get to your 10% goal immediately.
  • Generate a “stop doing” list. If each department head identified all the projects, products or activities that chew up time but don’t return a profit you would uncover loads of dollars. Not only that, it will be a morale booster. Everyone knows these are stinkers and can’t understand why the senior team doesn’t put the brakes on.
  • One word: Skype. Obvi, I know. How many travel expenses could be eliminated if all meetings that are less than 3 hours are done via Skype? How much wear and tear on people could be reduced if they didn’t have to hop on planes for a couple meetings? It is shocking to me how infrequently Skype is used in corporations. There seems to be only two choices for remote meetings: the dreaded conference call or very high end video equipment that may or may not work well.
  • Don’t nickel and dime the staff. The first items that are cut (never to return during better times) are small employee perks: free snacks, development (vs. required) training classes, reward and recognition funds, celebration gatherings, cell phones etc. The combined savings from all these activities is small potatoes but the price that is paid is huge. Value the staff first. Make cuts in their worlds as a last resort rather than the first go-to.
  • Share the pain. The bitterness is growing by the day in corporations. The disparity between exec and staff comp is so immense that the best and the brightest are leaving to start their own businesses. The grass is not necessarily greener but working so hard for little reward in a large company just feels too awful. Leaders who are willing to take the hit can garner respect and loyalty…and even more hard work from the staff.

Where the real change needs to occur is with the corporate boards. Executives take their marching orders to increase profits and reduce expenses knowing full well that they will be grandly rewarded. Although the staff discontent is increasing at a rapid pace these days, there doesn’t seem to be board or executive concern about that. The system is entrenched and broken and immoral.

Calling Elizabeth Warren. Come in please.

The Hunger for Selfless Leaders

“I care more about the overall well being of the organization and the staff than I do about my own career trajectory. When I am making challenging decisions my well being isn’t even part of the equation.” This is a real statement made by a very effective and humble leader. And his actions back up his sentiments.

How many of you can say that this is your posture as a leader? How many of you work for this kind of leader? I’m guessing not many. Yet when I check the stats for this blog all the entries related to “understated leaders” are routinely at the top of the list. Which is why I say there is a hunger out there. We are all sick and tired of disingenuous leaders who hold tight to their power and control and think about themselves first and the rest of us be damned. And don’t even get me started on the example that Trump offers! Not as a political candidate but as a business leader.

I could offer too many real examples of self centered leaders but I trust that you know about these types all too well. My shorthand for these leaders is The Emperor Without Clothes. So caught up in his own hype and grandeur that he is oblivious to the fact that everyone in the organization sees just how naked he is. No amount of ” we are all in this together” or “we will all win” cheerleading sessions erase the bald truth: his payday will be huge and everyone else’s will be uncertain. “Belt tightening” never includes the CEO. Those with less will get less. Those with more will get the same or more. I feel a rant coming on. Stay away from the dark side, Nicki! Shift gears!

I’ve been wracking my brains about how to help the majority of us who are beholding to these Emperors. We don’t have the power. They really can do bad things to us if we honestly tell them what we think. There is no possibility of leading them down the path to enlightenment. We can’t do magic behind the scenes to get the board to see the light. Do we just have to put up and shut up?

In the absence of enough understated, humble, servant, self aware leaders to go around, here are a few insights and tips for managing the Emperors.

  • They love adulation so don’t suck up to them. The more the staff is populated with sycophants, the more the leader will believe he is wonderful and generous and kind. The flattery reinforces his bloated self image. Don’t feed the beast!
  • They will show their fangs if you piss them off. Don’t put yourself in jeopardy by pushing back too hard, making them look foolish in public, badmouthing one of their allies in private or any other common sense no-no’s. You may think you are getting an inside edge but in reality you are digging your own grave.
  • Be very wary of being pulled into his inner circle. Politics at the top are tricky enough. Don’t add power-fueled antics to the mix. You may feel flattered that you were tapped but it is more likely that bad things will happen to you (not to mention your soul) if you enter whatever ring of Dante’s inferno is labeled “the CEO’s posse”. Draw firm boundaries around these requests. CEO: I’d like to take you into my confidence to discuss Joe with you. You: I appreciate your trust in me but Joe and I are essential partners and I am uncomfortable having this conversation without him present. (Exception: if this request comes from an understated leader it will be part of a broader, transparent feedback process that many are going through.)
  • When you establish appropriate distance don’t worry about it. When an Emperor realizes that you are impervious to his ego needs he will simply move on to the next victim (oops, I mean colleague). Lest you are concerned that he will sit around thinking or saying, “Damn, that Nicki just turned down a great opportunity to get more face time with me. She clearly doesn’t care about her career!”…think again. A narcissist’s only thoughts about themselves. You were a momentary flash that will be forgotten before you get back to your office.
  • Focus on being highly productive and let the chips fall where they may. If you are doing a great job, that’s all that matters. Let others applaud you. In fact, that provides safety in numbers for you. Emperors like the spotlight (see number one) and can only tolerate your glory for short (well choreographed…thank you HR and communications staff) spurts. If you are on the executive team and the Emperor is your boss, continue to do great work and enjoy the kudos from your peers and staff.
  • DO NOT SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER unless you don’t need your job. Emperors don’t want the truth, they can’t handle the truth so don’t be the little child in the parade that shouts out that he isn’t wearing any clothes. The better alternative is to say nothing.

My point here is, given that most of us don’t have unassuming, low ego bosses, we have to figure out ways to be successful and feel good about ourselves and our work under the thumb of someone who can’t be trusted to care about the organization or the staff. Understated leaders are hard to find but the craving for them grows by the day. So tread carefully with the devil that you know and work your ass off to become self aware and generous of spirit and focused on the greater good and others.

And note to self: stop binge watching The Borgias!


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