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Posts from the ‘Teams’ Category

Does Your Leadership Team Need Group Therapy?

“Let’s pull out the couch. The doctor is here!” A refrain I often hear from my team clients that isn’t exactly true. There is no couch and I’m not a doctor. But they are expressing a sentiment about what it feels like to do the tough work of examining their individual and group dynamics. It does feel a bit like therapy because they are asked to speak authentically to each other in productive ways. They are being asked to improve their bonds so this “family” can function in healthy ways so that all can thrive.

But it isn’t therapy. We just aren’t used to being coached to respectfully say what we mean, not passively or aggressively dig at each other, openly support our peers, minimize the competitive posturing and to actively create a psychologically safe work environment. It is one thing to aspire to work collectively and quite another to learn the skills and develop the self awareness to make that happen.

Lucia was hired to save a broken field office that was in danger of being shut down completely. She was selected because of her strong track record in developing high functioning leadership teams. Within a month of her tenure, she was experiencing significant buyer’s remorse. She had never sat with such a dysfunctional group of people and she was baffled about where to start.

I began to work with Lucia and her team by her fourth month. She regaled me with data points about each leader and what she had uncovered about their performance and what it was like to work with them individually or collectively. I spent 1:1 time with each team member to arrive at some initial thoughts about their separate perspectives. There was the usual finger pointing and multiple agendas but I uncovered two things I wasn’t expecting. One member seemed mentally disturbed and another seemed completely out of his element. I’m used to uneven performance on a senior team but it had been quite some time since I encountered someone who probably should not be in charge of anything, let alone other people. I had to strategize with Lucia about how to delicately and sensitively remove this person.

Once the unstable person left the team, she was no longer the lightning rod for all the woes. The member who was in charge of a function that he knew nothing about began to stick out like a sore thumb. He began to lobby for greater authority and prominence; his belief in his abilities was so strong (yet blind). Lucia successfully contained his ambitions as she worked hard to pull this team together.

In time, it was apparent that Lucia had such an odd mix of people on this team she inherited. She provided them with a very clear direction and set of principles and coached them to get on board and improve their individual and collective performance. Ultimately, she made several key decisions. She brought in a strong number two person who she had worked with in the past who could help develop the team and high performance. She decided to invest in developing one person who was too junior for his role but had potential. She replaced the under-performer for a much more qualified person. And she relied most heavily on the other team members who appreciated her leadership and were fully on board. Lucia was able to turnaround this team within 14 months and the office has been a top performer ever since.

Here are the lessons to glean from Lucia’s experience.

  • The leader needs to be clear about expectations and make some tough calls. Most leadership teams are aimless and not held to high standards. Lots of unproductive behaviors go unchecked so individuals are allowed to do whatever. Leaders must define expectations and hold people accountable.
  • Individual or team dysfunction feels unsafe. Even good and talented people will withdraw, act out or under-perform if they fear being attacked or judged. Having members in the mix who are either unhealthy or bad actors will prevent the team from becoming productive.
  • It is good news/bad news each time the leader removes or adds someone to the team. There is a sigh of relief followed by worry that they may be next when the thorn in the side leaves. Conversely, when a superstar walks into the group it feels threatening because the bar has been raised.
  • Creating healthy team dynamics is a process. It requires lots of 1:1 coaching, facilitating new ways of talking in team meetings, developing habits of giving feedback and patiently guiding everyone towards new behaviors.
  • The leader must always model the new norms. This means holding herself to the same high standards, acknowledging mis-steps, taking risks to be more open and vulnerable and using “we” more frequently than “I”.

Team development (group therapy!) is a high risk activity with extremely high yield. Imagine the leadership team working so well together that it sets the example for the rest of the organization. Imagine how productive discussions, decisions and collaborative work would be. Imagine how much less noise there would be if no one was complaining about those idiot leaders.

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What We Learned In Kindergarten But Forgot

I had the pleasure of picking up my granddaughter from kindergarten last week. As she ran towards me (for a smashing great hug!), I noticed a big sticker on her shirt. Hugs and kisses over, I put her at arms length so I could read her sticker. In big letters it read “I Was Proactive Today”.

Me: Sweetie, do you know what your sticker says?

Her: Yes, Grandma. It says I was proactive today.

Me: And do you know what that means?

Her: Yes, it means that I did something without being asked first. That I was helpful just because I saw someone needed me to be.

Me: Right! What exactly did you do to earn your sticker?

Her: I gave a picture to one of my friends because she needed it to finish her work.

Me: Oh honey. I’m so proud of you.

With her chest puffed out, we walked over to the other door to pick up her big brother as he exited his second grade classroom. More hugs and kisses for me.

Me: Hi sweetie. How was your day?

Him: Mostly good. But also not so good.

Me: Really? What happened?

Him: Yesterday I wanted to play with my friends at recess but they didn’t let me. I was really sad about that. So today I brought my football so we could all play together. But they didn’t want to play football. I really, really wanted to play football with them but they didn’t want to.

Me: What did you say to them? What did you do about it?

Him: Nothing really. It’s just making me feel bad.

Me: I’m sorry that happened honey. But I know you and I know you will figure out how to solve this problem.

And off he ran up the hill towards home with his sister trying to keep up. It was a bittersweet moment for a grandmother. How proud I was of how each of them handled a peer situation and how stunned that there would be one child on the planet who would not want to play with my grandson! I mean, seriously, he is awesome!!

The two interactions got me thinking. If a 5 year old is learning to be proactive on behalf of others, when do we un-learn that habit? If a 7 year old persists in appropriate ways to get his needs met and handles the disappointment when it doesn’t happen, when do we become frustrated whiners? Where is the reaching out to help our peers in the workplace? Where is the self sufficient problem solving that doesn’t require escalation to higher authorities or trash talking about our peers?

Several decades ago, the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was all the rage for businesses. It was a reminder that playing well with others was quite elementary and it was important for adults to get back to some good habits. We are years down the road, the world has changed significantly and we, once again, have forgotten our childhood lessons. I did a bit of digging to learn more about my grandchildren’s school curriculum because I was curious about 5 year olds learning big words and concepts like proactive. It turns out that the kindergarten curriculum is based on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!! Imagine that; teaching small children how to be independent, interdependent and to strive for continuous self improvement. What lovely synchronicity. Learn great habits in kindergarten, practice them throughout school and hopefully you will become an effective adult.

But my observation is that the simple guidance of these books is not so evident in the workplace today. I have been thinking about several of these behaviors.

  • Take turns. Adults want to be first, best, the only, the winner. If someone else has that designation it can only mean: someone cheated or behaved poorly to leap in front, someone has an affirmative action advantage, someone is the boss’ favorite, someone is brown nosing the boss, someone is just crazy not to see how much better I am. I hear people everyday believing that if someone else gets a turn or a piece of the pie, that means there is less for me or something unfair has occurred. A 5 year old doesn’t think that way. We all take turns, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it will be my turn again soon so there really isn’t less to go around, that’s just the way the world works. Besides, we are supposed to be nice and fair.
  • Play well with others. Maybe as we age we focus more on Covey’s independent habits and think less about all that win-win and mutual understanding stuff that is required of interdependence. I used to teach team development skills so people could learn how to collaborate for better outcomes. It used to be the norm that we had to be good team players. But I’m not convinced that people see the personal cost-benefit to participating in the collective. It seems that individual recognition is preferable because I can count on the value of my own work product more than others. The team pulls us down to the lowest common denominator or so I am told. Again, kids understand that everyone needs to make a great effort to create a fun and exciting learning environment. Everyone has to participate in this.
  • Be responsible. I’ve been hearing the word “lazy” a lot recently. Colleagues describe how others are just not working as hard, staying as late, being as responsive or following through. Emails not answered lickety split: lazy! Requests for work products delayed six nanoseconds: lazy! Leaving the office at 8pm: lazy! My granddaughter is learning about SMART goals. Remember that day in B-school? When did we forget this?

I see these three behaviors as a related cluster. Intolerance that others may be talented or better than you, not wanting to count on the contributions of others and being pissed off when others don’t march to your beat all strike me as insecure and self centered. When we have to denigrate others by projecting negative attributes onto them and believe superior ones about ourselves, then we are in a whole world of self doubt. And things get ugly quickly.

It may be time to revisit those kindergarten lessons…or Steven Covey. Develop good self awareness and self reliance and be mindful and generous with those around you. As my grandchildren could tell you, if you do these things you will learn a lot and make good friends. And then you get to go to recess where I’m sure my grandson will have figured out how to get you involved in a rowdy game of football!

Taking the “A” Out of Teams. Anxiety That Is

Over the years, my clients have fretted about managing their teams and wondered if they could ever learn how to be a good facilitator. A new client raised the same question and I finally gathered my thoughts in this letter below.

Dear Simon,

I’m writing this in response to some of the questions that were left hanging after our last session. Specifically, you were concerned about your skills to run good meetings. They cause you stress and you dread them. Your leadership team meetings frustrate you and your staff meetings are a downer. Although you (rightly) have confidence in your listening and relationship skills, you are struggling to translate those abilities into a group setting.

I’m hoping this memo provides some guidance.

First, as the newly installed leader you have inherited a boat load of “pre-existing conditions.” You have some preliminary diagnoses on certain individuals, some working theories about larger systemic issues and some signs of improved health in a few one on one relationships. That’s a good start. What is less clear are the many hidden agendas, axes to grind, real damage and how all these people and issues interact. You are being confronted with an array of all these things every day. Your approach so far has been to deal with them one at a time; relying on your super-spidey interpersonal skills to improve each situation.

Hold onto those abilities and insights. You will need them.

Secondly, teams are interpersonal dynamics on steroids. Lots of steroids! I’ve seen incredibly effective leaders go batty when trying to manage their teams. Have you ever played pinball? (I must admit, I spent way too much time in college seeing how far I could go on one quarter.) You pull back the spring and release one ball. It jumps all over the board and you try to control its trajectory using highly sensitive flippers. The ball bounces hither and yon as you rake up points; successfully navigating the back and forth. Imagine releasing all five balls at one time. Your eyes and fingers dart from one ball to the other, trying to keep everything in play as long as possible and hoping you don’t drop any balls. That’s what team interactions can feel like. Your ears and eyes jump from one person to the next, noticing body language or silence, reacting to tones of voices, wondering when to jump in or sit back, worried about two people colliding or leaving the discussion. Just like pinball, there are moments of excitement or disappointment. You get a free play or game over.

Teams can be messy and exhilarating.

Third, facilitating productive team discussions can be learned. Having a good foundation of empathy and interpersonal awareness is the starting point. What happens next requires self-awareness and discipline. Get comfortable with silence and disagreement. Learn to let go of smoothing things over. Trust that others can step up. Learn to hear above the fray and comprehend the non-verbal cues. That’s the short list. (More on how to do this later.) Once you feel adept at these abilities, it becomes a question of patience and good judgment. Sometimes you will need to be the Decider and other times you will need to be the Sherpa. That will become evident.

Facilitation is both science and art. The artful part takes over once you have learned the science.

Finally, these meetings are opportunities for others to get valuable face time with you. For some, that means persuading you on an issue. For others, it means joining with you on key initiatives. Until a team or staff is in the high functioning range, people are not coming together to interact with each other. You are their focus. They are jockeying for your favor and their stature in the organization. It’s a bit ugly and political but that is what happens when a new leader is installed. Who will become your favorite? Your aim is to facilitate their thinking and decision making with each other. You understand the value of everyone’s input and don’t want to set yourself up as the One.

Again, hold onto those ideals. For now, though, you need to recognize the team is at a more chaotic stage of development.

Most leaders in your shoes can relate to your challenge. While the 1:1 encounters may be productive, staff and leadership team meetings feel overwhelming for new leaders. Take a breath, appreciate that this is normal, let some air out of the “urgency tires” and be assured that you will get loads of chances to get this right. Meetings, unlike other organizational activities, are universally disliked. The format and content are tough to make thrilling and the dynamics just make them all the worse. Any one good meeting will be a momentary lift with only a remote expectation that it will happen again anytime soon. So, relax. You can improve this situation slowly but surely.

Let’s start with others wanting face time with you. Layer that with hidden agendas and dysfunctional dynamics. Think of it this way. You are a hard-working Dad who gets home late from the office most nights to your 5 kids who are clamoring for your attention. They will shove each other, tattle, jump up and down, scream in your face or cry just to get to you first. It doesn’t matter if the behavior is polite or not. They will do whatever works to be first, the favorite, the most important. They don’t want to share you with others and they want you to agree with whatever grievance they conjure up. They want you to kiss the booboo and tell them everything is alright. Teams are a lot like families (except we can’t fire our kids).

How would you handle this as a parent? You already understand all these kooky dynamics. You know all about sibling rivalry, discipline, structure and valuing each child. You don’t get sucked into the whining, they absolutely must brush their teeth and, no, they can’t stay up later. Although your team is a group of adults, the same principles apply. Give each one enough 1:1 time so they are comfortable in their relationship with you. (Thankfully, this is one of your strengths.) Create certain structure, guidelines (sic. rules) and parameters that set the norms for expected behavior. As the leader, consistently follow through on those rules, don’t play favorites, listen to each person and don’t allow for misdeeds.

Even if you are not the strictest disciplinarian as a Dad, watch how your wife does it and the positive impact it has on your kids. You will come to see the antics of this room full of adult staff in a whole new light if you use this parenting analogy.

Although it can take years to perfect the art of facilitating great teams, I can boil down the essential science of it into a few bullet points.

  • Forming, Norming, Storming. These are the stages of team development. In the forming stage, everyone is still getting acquainted and trying to figure out who is running the show. Norms are set both formally and informally as protocols are put in place, talkers and non-talkers emerge and the leader’s style becomes apparent. Once the norms solidify, the members will begin to challenge the order of things in the storming phase. If the original norms are strong and/or functional, the group will settle back into good operations until someone new enters, someone leaves or the norms are questioned again. This is just the ordinary ebb and flow of team development. Just when you think things feel stable, you can expect a conflict to erupt. Manage and ride the waves. As the new leader, your team is in full blown storming and looking to you for clues about the norms.
  • Be clear about your own principles. You have already made it clear that you value open discussion and consensus. Communicate that to the team by offering an explicit description of what you do and don’t mean by that. For example, you want to hear from everybody but that doesn’t mean that the conversation can remain open endlessly without a decision. I urge you to do some additional thinking about your principles and see if you want to add or change anything.
  • Structure is essential. Agendas, time management, note taking, follow up on action items and hearing from everyone are good disciplines to install. Lots of dysfunction occurs when there is an absence of these things because the vacuum needs to be filled. People will either be proactive and rush in willy-nilly to play a part or become passive and drop out. Take the reins, provide control.
  • Manage the voices. All teams have folks that will take over the discussion or cut people off or sit silently or shoot down every idea. You job is to ask some to back off and others to speak up. “I’d like to hear from Susan” is a polite way to stop Andy. “Jerry, you clearly have something on your mind” invites the cross-armed scowl-faced one to enter the discussion or to mind his non-verbals better. (Some non-verbals are not just seen. They are palpable.) The more you direct the flow of discussion to equalize it, the safer people feel to join in, the less emboldened the disrupters will feel and the more productive the discussion will be.

These are some of the basics. Sometimes I think that people get anxious or overwhelmed about facilitating teams because it feels scary. If you go back to the pinball imagery, it can be daunting. But if you can think of it more like parenting, something that is more familiar to you, you might minimize your concerns. We’re not born knowing how to be a good parent, but lots of on-the-job training teaches us over time. The same will happen for you with your team.

 

 

 

 

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here https://getrealleadership.com/2014/12/22/the-understanded-leader-contd/ and here  https://getrealleadership.com/2013/09/03/a-great-example-of-an-understated-leader/ about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.

 

Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

Taking A Break

Thank you for your loyal support of this blog. It keeps me on my toes to speak frankly about what happens on the ground in our organizations. I have lots more to write about but it will have to wait until December. I am immersed in very cutting edge and exciting work about leading innovation that is filling my every moment. I look forward to sharing some insights when I return to my blog later this year.

Before I sign off for a bit, I’d like to share some observations based on reader response to GetRealLeadership.

  • People are hungry for guidance about their teams. I’ve been focusing on teams recently because it receives so many views. It has made me wonder why, in spite of so much emphasis on team building and training over the past 20 years, not enough of it is taking. Is it the pressure of chasing each quarter that encourages poor behavior? Or the mix of generations and difficulties that can create to find productive communication habits? Is it egotistical or self righteous posturing? Is the hierarchy still alive and well? If millennials were raised on constant collaboration and teamwork, where is their influence at work? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
  • Selfless, low ego leaders are hard to find. But everyone is looking for one or trying to figure out how to become one. It is the most searched topic that brings people to this blog. Again, this makes me curious. We’ve had two decades of servant and authentic leadership books. Is there not enough follow through on this popular perspective? While this dialogue has been taking place, has there been a parallel movement to grab and hold onto power? Is the current political landscape just a culmination of a decade of powerful CEOs getting away with horrible deeds leaving the rest of us searching desperately for a very different kind of leader? This topic is alive and well but it is not getting much attention in the blogosphere. Have we become so cynical that we accept that nice people finish last?
  • There is little interest in women and people of color. Every time I write something on those issues there is very little traffic. I have mentioned in the past that this is disheartening to me. There is no level playing field in our companies but it seems this is not a priority or of interest to many people. A generous conclusion would be that many of you don’t believe this is a problem where you work. If that is the case, please write to me and tell me your success stories. I’m dying to hear some good news. But the realist in me sees what is happening in the real world and with the clients I serve. There are certainly some bright spots but the lack of women and people of color in top leadership roles persists. I can’t help but connect some dots between the current political discourse and what is happening in too many companies. Men are forgiven for everything and anything and women are blamed for everything and anything. Wells Fargo CEO finally was forced to step down but he is the exception. All the other bad players continue in their roles and keep accumulating vast wealth. A woman CEO is vilified and taken out in a heart beat for poor financial performance especially if she didn’t turn around a shit situation she inherited from some former male CEO. Sexism, racism and double standards live on in our culture. I expect more from our corporations.

Stay tuned for some very interesting posts about leading innovation in December. This is something every leader and company is grappling with. For some great reading on the topic I recommend Linda Hill’s book, Collective Genius. She and her co-authors offer a very different leadership model. And by the way, it is everything I have been writing about and you are searching for about great teamwork. It is a compelling read.

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments section or via private email at getrealleadershipnr@gmail.com

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