The three most exciting days in my life have been March 7, 1987, April 19, 1989 and September 1, 1994. On those dates my three children were born—and I was there, an eyewitness to the miracle of three human births.
I remember staring down at those little pink, wrinkled, newborn packages of undeveloped potential, trying to imagine their futures. Clairvoyant I wasn’t. But I believed then and now that their futures would be determined less by their DNA (looks, IQ, or personality) and more by the formative support and encouragement they would receive and the individual choices they would make.
I believe the same to be essentially true for leaders. Let’s face facts. All leaders are born—but none are born leaders. Leaders develop over time, in stages much like babies. They must learn to crawl before they stand; stand before they walk; and walk before they run.
The best leaders learn to lead through the support and focused encouragement provided by experienced leaders. As an experienced leader, we should embrace the opportunity and professional responsibility to live out the credo: Each one, teach one.
But like children, young leaders also learn by experimentation—trial and error—absorbing their fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. All leaders make mistakes. The best leaders look for the lessons in those mistakes, making adjustments for the future and maturing accordingly.
Every day a leader is born. It is our privilege to help guide that individual along his or her path to learning to lead.
Discussion: Are Leaders Born or Are Leaders Made?
Today marks the beginning of a weekly series of discussions on the 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership. I would like to hear your opinions and comments so I invite you to join the discussion.
Please comment here or if you prefer, join the discussion in our Leaders Ought to Know group on LinkedIn.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Author – Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership
A while back, I found myself engaged in a rather spirited conversation with an admittedly frustrated manager. He had spent the better part of the morning sitting through one of my leadership training retreats. One in which we dissected the concept of various leadership roles, responsibilities and results. My single-minded focus had been to help those present develop a blueprint of sorts that could enhance their own daily personal leadership activities. It was a positive exercise. But, all morning I could tell the concepts weren’t exactly clicking with this individual. So during our first break, I pulled him aside and asked him, “Why isn’t this working for you?”
“Phil, it’s not that it’s not working,” he began earnestly. “I realize the importance of what you’re sharing. But, I keep waiting to hear you tell me what I really need most right now. Tell me why these new employees I have been hiring lately are not working out.” He continued.
“I do extensive searches to find the most qualified candidates available. Once we get them hired and trained, we provide them the necessary tools, resources and support to allow them to be successful in their new jobs. Then, I stand back anxiously awaiting their success. Instead, too often, I end up watching the wheels come off before my very eyes. My department’s productivity drops. Our quality ratings suffer. The customer is far from being satisfied. Trying to find what motivates these people is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. It’s impossible! In the midst of all that, the overall morale of my best, most senior employees has dropped to an all time low. Now, if you really want to make this a good, worthwhile leadership development program, just show me what I am doing wrong and help me fix it. Then I will leave here a happy man!”
The challenge was clearly before me. Though I admittedly didn’t have all the answers for his questions and frustrations, I did recognize one fundamental problem in his approach that, over time I’ve discovered, has tripped up a great number of otherwise well-meaning managers.
“Well, the first thing you should realize is you don’t always want the most qualified candidates for every job,” I stated rather matter-of-factly. The gentleman shot me a quick look of disbelief. I could almost hear him thinking, “So this is the clown they picked to help make our organization better?”
Despite what he might have been thinking, his spoken response was more subtle and measured. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “I’ve always been taught that a good manager surrounds himself with the most qualified people available. Now you’re telling me that those are exactly the persons I don’t want?”
“Possibly,” I countered. “And here’s the reason why. The ‘most qualified’ candidates, often are simply not the ‘best suited’ candidates for the jobs we need to fill. Do you understand what I mean?”
The manager’s confusion was obvious and predictable. I was suggesting a concept that ran counter to much of what he had been taught and had practiced throughout his professional managerial career. Yes, he was confused, but he was also curious. By his own earlier admission, the way he was doing it now was simply not working as he planned. He knew there had to be a better way, he just hadn’t discovered what that better way was. Therefore, he was open to suggestions. That’s what brought him to my training session in the first place.
For the next several minutes we talked as I shared with him some thoughts as to why the ‘best suited’ employees trumped the ‘most qualified’ employees almost every time. He seemed to find value in our discussion and maybe you will too.
One practical reason why we shouldn’t always hire the “most qualified” candidates is purely economic. We may not be able to afford them. As a result of the education and experience the “most qualified” individuals possess, they frequently expect and command premium compensation in the marketplace. To pay them what they are worth may be impractical due both to limited financial resources and to the possible internal inconsistencies that would be created by paying this “new” employee (regardless of how qualified he or she may be) at a rate over and above that which other more experienced, long term employees are paid.
A second practical reason involves professional flexibility. Many of us have discovered the hard way, that the more experienced and qualified an individual is, often the less flexible he or she may be to learning new and tailored ways of doing things. In other words, the “most qualified” individuals may already “know” what works (based on their past education and experiences) and therefore, be less willing to listen and learn about the history of how and why things are done the way they are in this organization.
Coupled with the reason listed above, another practical reason for concern deals with the type of reception offered the “most qualified” new employees by their new co-workers and teammates. If the existing work group is intimidated or frustrated by the manner in which new, highly touted employees enter the established work group, then dissension, teamwork and morale problems can result. It takes a skillful leader to be able to introduce new, high performing individuals into an established work group without negatively disrupting the chemistry of the group. It’s not impossible. It can be done. But it must always be done with great care and consideration.
Finally, observant leaders must always be on the lookout for any internal activity that might offer even the slightest impression or indication of legal impropriety or inappropriateness. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Assume, if you will, that you are just concluding an interview with an extremely well qualified candidate for a current job opening. During the course of the interview, you had already made the conscious decision that this candidate would not be a good fit for the position you have available. The candidate was obviously over-qualified, or too expensive, or too inflexible, or too cocky, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not that she is a bad person, it’s just that she’s not the “best suited” person for this job.
Just before bringing the interview to its end, you ask if she has any lingering questions? She offers only one, “What are you looking for in the candidate you will ultimately hire to fill this position?” Ever so innocently, you respond by saying among other things, “our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available.” You didn’t really think about what you said, you just said it. But she thought very carefully about the specific words you used. You were just saying what you thought was the right thing to say. But what she heard was an implied promise.
Later on, once she learns that she has been passed over for the position, if she discovers the job was filled by a less educated, less experienced, less senior individual, a very real possibility exists that she will assume she has been ultimately discriminated against. After all, she heard you say, “Our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available,” and in her mind, that means her. Is a lawsuit imminent? Not necessarily. That depends on factors too numerous to address here. But, why put ourselves in such a position of risk? It’s not worth it.
I can’t say whether or not the gentleman that initiated the exchange that led to this article actually left “a happy man” or not. I do think he left with a better understanding of the significance of the words we use, when coupled with the responsibility that comes with our roles as supervisors, managers and leaders. I wish the same for you.
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Demand Better Service Than You Deliver?
It happened for me just a few weeks before Christmas. The days were getting shorter and weather was cold and menacing. The crowds of holiday shoppers and travelers were swelling. In other words, it was just about the time each year when those of us who make our living in the service of others take center stage. It is our collective time to shine.
Unfortunately, for far too many in service sector positions, this time of year triggers grousing and complaining about long holiday hours that must be worked and aggravating customers that must be served. Such attitudes are certain to eventually surface publicly and become depressingly obvious to even the most casual observers.
It’s in such a dismal service landscape that some service professionals choose to rise to the top and shine brightly. They are the ones you and I notice immediately and remember for a long, long time. They are the ones we determine to be exceptional.
As usual, on this morning I was in a big hurry. While backing my vehicle into my chosen parking spot, I spied the airport shuttle bus fast approaching…quickly. I exited my vehicle and rushed to gather my bags. I knew if I missed this bus, I would be waiting another ten or fifteen minutes in the frosty cold before the next bus appeared. Luckily, I made it just in time to join other hurried and harried travelers for the 15-minute loop through the economy parking lot on our way to the terminal. To be honest, I didn’t even notice our driver. He (or she, I honestly don’t know which) just sat in the seat and drove.
Upon exiting the bus at the terminal, I soon joined others travelers in the airport ticketing line. Once in line I reached for my tickets and cell phone. The tickets were there. The cell phone wasn’t. I knew immediately what had happened. In my haste to catch the shuttle bus, I had left the cell phone in the console of my truck. Now I was faced with the prospect of either a week without cell phone service or a retracing of my steps in a rushed effort to retrieve the phone. Though time was short, I decided I needed that phone.
Immediately after checking my bags, empty-handed I raced down the escalator and back outside to catch the next available bus to the economy parking lot. This early in the morning, I was pleased to find I was the only person waiting. Thankfully, in just a few anxious minutes I saw the next bus approaching. The instant the bus pulled to a stop and the doors swung open, I was on board.
“Good morning,” I said breathlessly.
“Good morning,” the driver replied.
“Well, I’ve already made my first big mistake of the day. I left my cell phone in my car a few minutes ago and now I hope I can get it without missing my flight,” I explained, hoping he would take the hint, empathize with my plight and voluntarily wait for me as I retrieved my phone. I knew if he was unwilling to wait, I would be standing in breezy 25 degree weather for another 10-15 minutes waiting for the next shuttle bus in the loop.
“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” he reassured me. “I’ll be happy to wait.”
And wait he did. When we arrived at my designated stop–the first stop on his multi-stop route–the bus had barely stopped rolling when I bolted from the bus and ran the hundred yards or so to my truck. I snatched my phone from its resting place in the truck’s console and was soon jogging back to the bus.
Once back on board, I thanked the driver profusely. His simple response to my gushing thanks was perfect. “No problem. I’m sure you would have done the same thing for me.” I really believe I would have, but both he and I knew he didn’t have to wait for me and that many other drivers simply would have chosen not to.
For the next 10 minutes I rode in silence as we continued his assigned route, all the while I watched this gentleman as he performed his service duties. At stop after stop, he didn’t just stop the bus and wait; he repeatedly exited his seat to help passengers load their luggage. While driving, I watched as he scanned the lot on all sides, looking for passengers, instead of staring straight ahead in an effort not to make eye contact with those he might easily have driven by, leaving them to wait for the next bus.
As the bus began to fill, he greeted and spoke to each of us individually. During various brief, but rich conversations he had with different passengers, among other things, I learned this driver had a son in medical school who he was looking forward to seeing during the Christmas
Finally, the pickup loop had been completed and the driver maneuvered the bus toward the parking lot exit and on to the terminal. I knew what to expect next. I had been conditioned to expect to hear the scripted and lackluster announcement–the same one I had heard dozens and dozens of times before:
Welcome to Nashville International Airport…Up ahead I will be making two stops…I will make the appropriate airline announcements at each of these stops…Upon your return, take the economy, not the long-term bus to retrieve your car…When exiting the bus, watch your step.
Both efficient and comprehensive, admittedly, the announcement covered the necessary bases. Though I had never spent much time analyzing it, I had often thought this mechanical announcement was lacking some necessary ingredient. Was it humor, was it spontaneity, was it soul? Honestly, I didn’t know what it was lacking, but for me it was lacking something. That is until this morning. For this morning at least, the staid old announcement was out. This time I heard something very
different. This time I heard the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for choosing Nashville International Airport and thank you for parking your car in the economy lot and for being on my bus. If you weren’t here, pretty soon I wouldn’t be here either. Because of you I have a job and for that I am thankful. Please let me know if you have any questions or need any special assistance once we arrive at the terminal. I will do all I can to help you. If you wish, once we come to a stop, just step off the bus and don’t worry about wrestling your bags. I will be happy to retrieve your bags for you. There’s no sense in hurting yourself unnecessarily.”
When the bus stopped, I filed off with the other passengers. Though I didn’t have bags to wait for and I still had a flight to catch, I found myself lingering to watch this service professional as he worked to make the last few seconds of each customer encounter uniquely special.
When each of the passengers had been accommodated and was on their way to catch their flight, I couldn’t help myself, I stepped forward to speak to the driver
one last time.
“Excuse me,” I said as I extended my hand, “my name is Phillip Van Hooser.”
The gentleman accepted my hand and shook.
“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Van Hooser, my name is Corwin Hodge.”
“Mr. Hodge, I couldn’t leave without telling you how impressed I am with the way you have gone about helping me and others on your bus this morning. You probably know that your level of attention to the customer is rare these days, even here at the airport on these buses.”
“Yes, sir, I know it is,” he admitted. “But, if I don’t make an honest effort to serve the people I come in contact with, the people who make it possible for me to work and eat, how can I, with a clear conscience, ever expect others to serve me well when it comes time for me to be the customer? Besides, it just makes the day better when you know you have helped somebody, doesn’t it?”
Indeed it does.
I left my encounter with Corwin Hodge that morning with a slightly different slant on life. At first unconsciously, later deliberately, I found myself walking a little taller, smiling more freely, greeting others genuinely, while on the lookout for someone to help. After all, how could I, with a clear conscious expect help from others if I am not first, willing to offer it freely?
What about you? Can you, with a clear conscience, say you don’t demand better service than you deliver? If so, congratulations! You have joined the unique ranks of Corwin Hodge and others. However, if you must honestly admit that the service you offer is lacking somewhat as compared to what you would hope to receive, my questions are simple. Why and what are you committed to do about remedying the situation? And are you willing to start today?
For more profiles and stories of exceptional service, check out my book, Willie’s Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty.
Why Leaders Should De-Brief
There is a lot of evidence available to support the wisdom and value of investing necessary time, effort and energy in the pre-planning of any worthwhile task or activity. Pausing long enough to consciously and thoroughly think through the process, including the anticipation of required steps, phases and alternatives, can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure in any endeavor.
In fact, it has been suggested by time management gurus that for every unit of time (i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.) spent in planning a particular activity, upwards of four times that amount of time can be expected to be saved during the implementation phase of those plans. In other words, if we spend a measly fifteen minutes poring over atlases and maps, carefully predetermining our vacation driving route through unfamiliar terrain, we can reasonably expect to save an hour or more that might otherwise have been lost due to road construction and congestion, wrong turns, dead ends and having to stop to ask for directions. For those of us who, so far, have refused to surrender our pioneer spirit by becoming GPS-dependent (is it just me and my Kentucky/Daniel Boone roots or what?), such focused pre-planning serves as a key ingredient in a more enjoyable journey.
I was in the midst of developing and presenting a months-long, comprehensive leadership and customer service training initiative for the management team of the Ocala (FL) Police Department, when I received an unsolicited call from Captain Jack Suess (pronounced “cease”). The call went something like this:
Capt. Suess: “Phil, I’ve been talking with the Chief about the training you’re leading for our agency. We were thinking that since you’ve never worked as a cop that you might be interested in seeing how law enforcement really works from the inside out. Understanding what we really do might be helpful to you in offering unique perspectives and even additional applications for the training concepts you’re sharing with us.”
Van Hooser: “I certainly would be interested. What do you have in mind?”
Capt. Suess: “We’re in the final stages of an investigation that has been underway for several weeks. Our undercover people have surveillance information concerning two juveniles and a known convicted felon who we know to be actively selling crack cocaine out of one of the public housing complexes. These guys are known to be armed and dangerous. They are also street smart and unpredictable. It’s critical that we get them off the streets before they hurt someone. We’re in the final planning stages of a S.W.A.T. operation that is scheduled to take place tomorrow night. Would you like to ride along with me as an observer?”
My pulse quickened at Capt. Suess’ suggestion. Was it fear, trepidation, uncertainty? I didn’t really know and there wasn’t much time to figure it all out. Having to real idea of what I was getting myself into, I heard myself ask meekly…
Van Hooser: “Are you sure I won’t be in the way?”
Capt. Suess: “Absolutely not! We will be glad to have you along. And don’t worry, you will be perfectly safe.”
Van Hooser: “Worried? Do I seem worried?” I asked, as I laughed nervously.
As scheduled, the following day at noon I arrived at the Ocala Police Department headquarters where I found Capt. Suess waiting. I was quickly ushered into a briefing that was already underway. In the room were a dozen or more uniformed officers, two plain clothes officers–a policeman and policewoman, a representative from the State Attorney’s office and the Chief of Police himself.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I listened as the group discussed detailed plans for apprehending the suspects. They carefully evaluated the intelligence they had and matched that intelligence with the best time, place and manner to make the arrests. Significant time and attention was spent considering the safest and most efficient approach for all concerned–the officers, the local residents, potential bystanders, even the suspects themselves.
As I watched and listened intently to the goings-on in front of me, I had to remind myself that this was not some sort of reality show. It was no show at all. It was reality! In front of me were professionals of the highest order, in the midst of planning and strategizing how to do a difficult job assigned them in the most judicious manner.
Once the meeting adjourned, I headed out to the driving range with my host where I watched the group practice rolling stops and vehicle evacuations. Every stop was timed and rated. No detail was too minor for consideration.
The balance of that afternoon and evening was spent in equally impressive practice and careful preparation for the planned activities of the evening ahead. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.
Finally, by 10:00 p.m.–a full 10 hours after I had joined the planning process–everyone and everything was in place. I won’t attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of the events of the evening. Once the action started there were screeching tires, screaming sirens, shouts and arrests–luckily, there were no shots fired. Simply put, the plan was initiated and the intended arrests were made. From an organizational standpoint, the plan worked and the bad guys were soon behind bars.
I must admit, it was an exhilarating experience, one I won’t soon forget. However, I must also admit that as we drove back into the police department parking lot at about 11:30 p.m., I was more than ready to call it a day. As I exited the patrol car, I stepped around and extended my hand to Capt. Suess. He just looked at me.
“Thank you for including me in all this. It’s been a very valuable day for me. I’ve learned a lot,” I said.
“You’re not free to go just yet,” Capt. Suess said matter-of-factly, without accepting my hand. “We still have the operation de-brief to attend to. Follow me,” he said, as he turned and headed for the administration building. My options being limited, I did as I was told.
I followed Capt. Suess back into the briefing room where the day had started for me almost 12 hours earlier. There we found most of the officers who had been engaged in the operation of the evening, already assembled. For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the roundtable conversation as it centered on specific answers to a handful of questions.
As I listened intently to the discussion around me, a professional reality soon settled over me. I realized that I had worked as a manager in corporate America for the better part of 10 years. I had been engaged in the planning and implementation of innumerable plans and projects during that period of time. However, in that briefing room on that evening I realized for the first time that I had never before been involved in any sort of de-briefing AFTER the operation had been concluded. As interesting as the previous 11+ hours had been, those last few minutes provided me the tidbit that would allow me to be a better leader and communicator from that point forward.
That night I learned the power of the de-brief. Since that night I have been sharing the lessons I learned there with my management audiences by way of 6 questions. Consider these 6 questions carefully. First, ask yourself how often you have used each in the past. Second, ask yourself how valuable they might be should you start using them now. Of course, to yield positive benefit each question needs to be asked openly, answered honestly and acted upon accordingly.
The 6 questions are:
- What did we do well?
- What did we do poorly?
- Who should be acknowledged publicly for their superior performance?
- Who should be redirected privately for their sub-par performance?
- What have we learned from this operation?
- What should we change before the next one?
We all recognize the power that resides in proper planning. But, as has been said before by others, feedback is the breakfast of champions.
Back in 2005, I read an article in FORTUNE (June 25, 2005) by Geoffrey Colvin. It was entitled, “The Wisdom of Dumb Questions.” The title caught my attention. In the article, Mr. Colvin surmised that “dumb questions lead to smart decisions…” and that a dumb question can “…cut to the heart of the matter, posing a blunt challenge to someone or something–an authority, a policy, the established order. It can make people uncomfortable.”
That made sense to me and I started thinking: What dumb questions should I be asking that might lead me to smarter leadership decisions? I thought you might be interested in some of the “dumb” questions I now suggest proactive leaders consider asking with great regularity.
Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask
Dumb Question #1: How am I doing?
This question was made popular by former Mayor Ed Koch. During his term of service to the City of New York, Koch was renowned for stopping average New Yorkers on the street and asking them this, his favorite dumb question. Why would he do such a thing? I think he realized how easy it is for leaders to become isolated, even insulated from the very people they are entrusted to lead. If he didn’t ask the regular “Joes” and “Janes,” his only other alternative would be to trust the opinions of his advisors–most of whom were even farther removed from the man and woman on the street than he.
Dumb Question #2: What have we screwed up lately?
All of us enjoy having rose petals strewn before us. In other words, we like to hear people bragging and commenting on all the great things we have done and are doing. But what do those kinds of accolades really teach us? Not much, I’m afraid. Praise is great for ego boosting, but rather worthless when it comes to building a foundation for continual improvement. Mistakes, errors, miscalculations, screw ups–those are the things that can really teach us something. Admit it; haven’t you learned more from your mistakes over the years than you have from your successes? Well then, why not spend some focused time seeking out areas where we seem to be chronically screwing up, in order to shine a bright light on those areas as we begin to repair them.
Dumb Question #3: What should we be doing better?
Maybe you really are doing a great job and people are honestly struggling to find concrete answers to your Dumb Question #2. Congratulations! You must be doing something right as a leader. Keep it up. But never forget that some wise person once said that “good is the enemy of great.” And it is. There’s always room for improvement and improvement should be our never-ending quest–to be great at what we do and how we lead. Therefore go out and ask your constituencies — the employees, customers, colleagues, partners that make up your professional existence — what they would like to see done at a better, higher, more sophisticated level. Their answers may prove to shake the comfort zones you have allowed to form around you. But their answers may also serve as the catalysts and motivation to jumpstart heightened levels of performance.
Dumb Question #4: What would you like for me to do about that?
This may be the dumbest question of all and yet the smartest one you can ask. Everyone has an opinion. And even the lowliest of employee is known to openly and freely share opinions with fellow workers, family members, neighbors, even innocent bystanders waiting patiently in the grocery store checkout line–everyone, that is, but you, their leader. Possibly the smartest thing a leader can do is to actively seek out the personal, specific opinions of others. Don’t be afraid to ask them Dumb Question #4, then shut up and listen. It’s nothing short of amazing what they might tell you–in startling detail. The chances are stacked in your favor that you will learn something from the conversation. And don’t worry; I know you’re thinking–what about the worst case scenario? What if they share suggestions that are unrealistic, unworkable and impossible? What then? My advice is to tell them so. In an honest, open manner, tell them what won’t work AND why. Most of the people we work with are reasonable people. If it truly is unworkable, based on your complete explanation, they will understand. And for those who just refuse to understand, at least they can never say you didn’t make the effort to explain things to them.
Here’s How It’s Done
Now that we’ve covered four dumb questions any leader can ask, maybe I should tell you how it’s done best.
1. Don’t label your question as a dumb one before you ask it. The fact that you have the courage to ask the obvious questions may actually make you look brilliant in the eyes of others. It worked for Socrates: after all “What is virtue?”
2. Don’t apologize for asking the question. Don’t dilly-dally. Don’t tip-toe around the question until it has lost its power, its uumph. Just step up and ask it. And ask it with sincerity and an open mind.
3. Don’t worry about what the answer to the question might be. You can’t predict nor control the future–the answer will be what it is. You can begin to deal with it once it has shown itself.
4. Don’t be intimidated if people don’t immediately offer a response to your question. Be patient. Let them process the question appropriately. After all, this may be the very first time their leader ever asked a dumb question–on purpose, at least.
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How many times in your role as leader have you experienced a clashing of attitudes or ideas with one of your followers or even another employee? How often are you called in to mediate or resolve situations where people just don’t see eye to eye on an issue? It happens frequently, doesn’t it? And if you’re like most people, you find these situations uncomfortable and full of emotional minefields.
As leaders, we recognize that problems like these need to be addressed, but so many of us hate and therefore avoid the confrontation we know needs to take place. We say things like, “this will only make matters worse.” “I’m not sure I can control my emotions.” “Maybe if I give it some time, the issue will resolve itself.” Do any of these sound familiar? Probably so. Unfortunately, it is at best, wishful thinking.
Knowing how to successfully manage a confrontation is a skill that all leaders need in their toolkit. If you’ve been avoiding confrontation for fear of doing more harm than good, consider equipping yourself with these techniques for managing the situation effectively.
How to Manage a Confrontation
1. Prepare yourself in advance. Clearly determine the cause for the confrontation. Are you addressing a performance issue, an unacceptable attitude or perhaps a safety issue? Also determine the purpose or the goal for the confrontation. What do you want the confrontation to achieve? How do you want to be perceived after the confrontation? With these answers in mind, it will be easier to stay on target during the confrontation.
2. Do not procrastinate if a confrontation is necessary. Many leaders try to convince themselves that the problem with work itself out or dissipate if left alone. Putting off what needs to be addressed allows more time for emotions to grow and frustrations to fester. The reality is that bad news does not get better with time.
3. Avoid extreme emotional involvement. Never initiate a confrontation when you are emotionally charged. This is difficult, but that is why preparing yourself in advance is so important.
4. Choose carefully the time and place for the confrontation. Go behind closed doors if possible. Confrontation in front of an audience invites embarrassment and offers undue opportunities for “emotional performances.” Consider timing the confrontation at the end of the work day. This gives the other person an easy exit for cooling off and considering the issue.
5. Work to determine the other person’s driving needs. Try to evaluate the issue from their vantage point.
6. Willing accept some measure of responsibility for the situation – admit fault if you are to blame in part or in total.
7. Allow the other person time to vent. Remember, you have had the advantage of sorting through your emotions before initiating this confrontation. Give the other person the same opportunity.
8. Zero in on the problem, not the person. Positive confrontation focuses on the problem. Negative confrontation focuses on the person. Frame the conversation in terms of specific expectations for future performance. Encourage feedback regarding alternative solutions or approaches for managing the issue.
You may not find a solution immediately. You may never completely agree on the issue. But a leader’s responsibility is to address difficult issues and ensure steps are taken to work toward a mutually agreeable solution. It’s hard work – and something that leaders ought to know.
You know, a lot of people like to pretend that they basically have no fear, of if they do have a fear, it’s minor, and therefore, has very little bearing on who they are and what they do. Well, the reality that I’ve found in life is that we all have fears, some big, some small, but in their own inimitable way, every fear will in fact affect us. We can either grow through it, or we can be, well, we can be shackled by them.
I wanted you to think about a fear though today, specifically a fear that maybe most people don’t consider. If I asked you what you were afraid of and we were sitting face-to-face having a conversation, you might be saying, “Well, I’m afraid of flying” or “I’m afraid of speaking in public” or “I’m afraid of failing at something.” All of those things are things that even those that don’t like to admit their fears, well, they don’t have as much problem or as much hesitancy admitting those as others.
But, the fear that I want to talk about is the fear of success. You know, telling someone that they’re afraid of succeeding is counterintuitive to most folks. Most people say, “I’m afraid of the very thing that I’m working toward, that I’m striving for, that I’m sacrificing as a result of?” And, the answer is, all too often unfortunately, yes. Yes, we’re fearful of succeeding.
I remember several years ago when I was still working as a Human Resource Manager in corporate America, it was my job to post job bids. And, what that meant was when a job came open in the plant, our policy was that we would write up a description of that job and we would place it in a public place so that all employees would have an opportunity to see it. If they were interested, they would sign their name or make me aware of their interest, and they would be interviewed and considered for the possibility of being placed in that position.
Well, on this particular occasion, I had a job, a very specific job that had very unique requirements for it, descriptions for it, very unique skills and experiences that would fit it. And, as I was working at the job description, in preparation to post that job description, I kept thinking of one individual in the company that would be perfect for the job.
And, it was so pressing on my mind that this one individual had all the unique skills and abilities, talents, backgrounds, etc, that would fit very, very nicely into the position, that I did something that I normally, in that role as Human Resource Manager, that I normally would have never done.
I went and posted the job on the board, but then I made a beeline to this particular individual. I sat down across her desk and I said…we’ll call her Wanda. I said, “Wanda, do you realize that there’s a job posting for a job.” And, I mentioned the job. “There’s a job posting up now for consideration.” She said, “Yeah, I knew that that was going up.” I said, “Well, I’m glad. Have you thought about that job?” And she said, “Well, yeah. I’m pretty familiar with the job.”
I said to her then, “Wanda, I’ve been thinking about the job and as far as I can tell from the requirements of the job versus what you bring to your position today, you would be the perfect candidate. You have the right experience. You have the right education. You have the right temperament.” It just went on and on. “You would be the perfect candidate for this particular job.”
To my surprise, she looked at me and said, “Yes, I would. Yes, I would, Phil. I thought exactly the same thing. I read the job description, or at least was familiar with it, and I know that I could do this job. I could be successful in this job. I know I would be the perfect candidate for this job.” I went, “Well, that’s great. So, you’re going to sign up for the job then?” She said, “Oh, no. No, I’m not.”
I said, “You’re not? You just now said you’d be a perfect fit for the job.” She said, “Yes, I would.” I said, “Then, why not sign up for the job?” She looked at me, and she said, “Phil, when I was successful in this job, and I would eventually be successful, the reason I’m not signing up is I would not know what you guys would want me to do next.”
In other words, she was saying, “I have no fear that I would be successful. I only fear what would happen as a result of the success.” In other words, because she could not predict what would happen next, she would choose not to be successful at something she was, well, ultimately confident that she could, in fact, succeed at.
Think about that for a moment. It happens a lot. Sales people do not exceed their quota, even though they could, even though they’re having a wonderful quarter or a wonderful year, they don’t go beyond what their quota is because they’re fearful that exceeding their quota this year means that they might have their quota raised next year. Never mind that they could reach it easily. Never mind that would even benefit or profit from it. They don’t like the idea of being successful and not being able to predict what that will entail in the future.
I think that’s very shortsighted for leaders. I think we, as leaders, need to be constantly and continuously striving for success, success in our communications, success in our visioning, success in literally everything that we do as a leader without fear of what will happen, but rather, with faith that what does happen in the future would be able to be attended to, accomplished, and succeeded at.
I’ve always said that success breeds success, but unfortunately, fear also breeds new fears. As leaders, I think we need to lead in such a way that others see us striving for success even when the future is still unknown. In so doing, we may set the standard and we may offer a picture of encouragement for others who would be following us.
Anything we can do to be successful and help others be successful at the same light without the fears that may be associated with those successes, well, as far as I’m concerned, those are things we need to think about. Those are things that leaders ought to know.
Recently a reader posed a sensitive scenario that often proves conflicting for organizational leaders. In essence the reader asked, “How long is too long for an organization to accommodate for an employee’s personal crisis, such as the illness and death of a family member?”
By accommodations, I mean time off, flexible work schedules, and reduction of job responsibilities. In this scenario, the crisis has lingered for two years. Performance appraisals indicate the employee has and continues to perform below expectations. The dilemma is this: How does a supervisor, in a sensitive manner, lead an employee in this situation to a) improve performance; b) accept a lesser role with the company; or c) move away from the company?
Certainly, few leaders want to be thought of as cold and insensitive in a situation like this one. It’s a precarious dilemma. The pain and emotional suffering that is certain to have been experienced by an employee is something that none of us ever want to face. Organizational leaders that work to ease the pressure of situations like this are to be commended. Frankly, in this day and time, I fear most simply wouldn’t make such an effort to accommodate an employee for an extended period of time. They would have either determined that they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–justify the sacrifices on the part of the organization.
But, the fact remains that more is now expected of the employee and the employee knows it. Can the employee rise (return) physically, emotionally and intellectually to the level of performance necessary and required by this position? At this point, no one really knows–not even the individual. But, for the good of the organization and all who are vested in its success, the organization is within its rights to expect more than has been realized over the past two years.
As a leader, have you faced a similar situation? Have weeks passed into months as you’ve avoided addressing the issue? Are your superiors, colleagues as well as your employees questioning your leadership, your fairness, your ability to be objective?
If this reader asked for your guidance, what would you suggest?
Here are some ideas to consider:
1. If the company offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), I suggest utilizing that service to identify an outside, professional counselor to assist the employee. There is no reason to know the substance of their discussions. However, it is fair to inform both the counselor and the employee that the end goal of their session(s) is one of the following options:
a) Eliminate all barriers (including emotional ones) that are currently preventing the employee from returning to the expected performance levels required of the position the employee currently occupies. Identifying specific standards of performance is appropriate and would be recommended.
b) Decide to step out of the current position and into another available position within the company that would accommodate the changes this employee may have experienced relative to professional mindset, performance, energy and commitment during the preceding two years.
c) Voluntarily abandon the position within the organization entirely and seek more suitable employment opportunities given the changes in perspective and priorities that the employee may have experienced.
2. I suggest a firm deadline be assigned to this counseling activity from the beginning of the process, as in, “We will expect your decision regarding what the future may hold for you here within the next 3 to 6 weeks” (or whatever period you think reasonably acceptable).
3. It should also be reinforced that regardless whether Option 1 or 2 is selected, future performance evaluations will be conducted to determine whether acceptable levels of performance are being met. If they are not, appropriate actions will be taken consistent with company policy regarding professional job performance.
These are certainly not easy or comfortable conversations to have with anyone, especially an employee who has been through so much. However, honesty and expediency are key here. The employee needs to hear the truth and needs to hear it ASAP. Any less would be unfair to the individual and to the integrity of the organizational process.
Great leadership is not easy and it’s not always clear-cut. But for those leaders who commit themselves to working through tough situations like this, a leadership reputation of fairness, honesty and integrity is the reward.
In a recent conversation with Mike McCarty, President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, I asked Mike what skills leaders must possess to be effective today.
Phil: Tell me, from your perspective in developing leaders, what are the key elements, one, two, three, top one, top two, top three things that you think a leader, regardless of the industry, but a leader needs to be able to do today that may have been different five or ten years ago and may be different five years from now?
Mike: Yes, again, good question. Obviously, when you look at that of a leader, you need to be qualified to move into a position form a technical standpoint or a knowledgeable standpoint. I think the key, the higher up you move into the management role of the organization, the greater your people skills need to be. Again, I’m a little biased because as I’ve said many times, I think the agricultural industry is so relationship-oriented, but again, you cannot lose sight of the people side of the business and to be an effective leader today, you have to have superior people skills. If you could manage people…because the earlier question, you said what was the bigger challenge and I said it was people.
People drive our industry. People drive any industry in business, so I try to encourage people to…and that’s one of the questions I ask when you move into a role – how have you been at managing people? How do you communicate to people? We’re going to have a lot of people up underneath these managers that have the technical expertise, the knowledge base, to do the daily job, but when you become a senior level, whether it’s a Vice President, Division Manager or Senior Manager, it’s people skills. So that would be the number one trait. Obviously, there’s many other things that go into the qualifications to move into a job, but it’s people skills.
Phil: Well, let me take that broad based question and ask it in a more direct and more personal standpoint. You mentioned to the group earlier that you’d been with the company – I think you said – thirty-two years?
Mike: Thirty-two years.
Phil: Thirty-two years, same company, young man, started early in your career and here you are in the middle part of your career. Maybe even approaching the latter stages of your career or getting closer there, what do you going from a salesman in the business to now the CEO suite, what did you attribute, again, the top one, two, three things for you personally? What is it that you learned that brought you from where you were to where you are today?
Mike: Okay, let me sum this up and I’ll kind of worked backwards. You have to trust other people in the company and let me say what I mean by that. When you’re first promoted into a management position and you’re usually coming out of a field, you tend to be much more hands-on because that’s how you’re successful being a sales rep or a branch manager is you move into manager roles. You have many, now, different people working for you. Initially, most people take the same approach of being very hands-on because that’s the way they’ve been successful when in many times you have to back away.
You have to learn how to delegate and you have to learn how to communicate. That gets back a little bit to what I said earlier about the people skills. How do you communicate with people? How do you delegate with people and not be where, I’ve always said, where people feel that you’re looking over their shoulder. If you can do that and create that team concept and support people rather than being the doer, then it works well. I had to learn that the hard way. I mean I was very young when I got the opportunity to become President. I was forty years old.
Phil: Forty years old, wow.
Mike: I was forty years old, was offered the opportunity to be Helena, very grateful, but I was inheriting, at that time, about a billion dollar company and I was forty years old. Many people asked me, “What did you do to prepare?” Well, there was no preparation.
I told them I would do it because I had enough confidence, when you’re younger. I said, “Look, I’m going to try this and I think I can do it.” Did you have formal training? No. I told people I came out of the field. I was a salesman at heart. I loved dealing with people and I had a desire to succeed. I wanted to succeed. There were a lot of things that drive you and you just say, “Okay, I’m going to do that.” Then you learn, so I kind of learned on the job, so to speak, and I’ve been in the job now for sixteen years. So when I first took it, I said, “Well, we’ll see how long this will last,” because you don’t really know when you’re a forty year old and you take over a company. How long are you going to be able to get along with your shareholders and your stakeholders in the company, but you learn by that and I’ve learned a lot.
Now, what I want to try to do is share what I’ve learned for the generation, so the next guy that sits in my seat doesn’t have to do it the way I did it. Not saying it can’t be done, but we’re a much more complex company today. We’re not a billion dollar company anymore. We’re almost a $4 billion dollar company. We’re so much more diverse. We have so many more employees, so the transition should be different.
Phil: Well, then let me ask you one final question and this question will be on the heels of the comment you just made. You said, “I’m trying to help the next person to know how to do it a little bit differently.” For the people that may be watching and who may have the desires to grow their own career past where they are right now, maybe not to a CEO suite at some point, but to somewhere beyond where they are, what would you suggest to them that they need to do almost immediately that would move them toward whatever that goal or level in their career might be?
Mike: I think it’s making it known what you would like to do because when you have a lot of people in the company. If I know, as the CEO of Helena, people have a desire to want to do more, to move into a management role, I encourage them to tell me that. Believe or not, you remember these things. You remember these individuals because when you’re part of a mass group, there’s so many talented people. Obviously, working hard and achieving success and being one of the top people in the company, certainly, that’s an advantage, but also making it known because don’t take it for granted that people know what you want to do and I think that’s what I’ve always encouraged people.
If someone wants to have an opportunity to work in California, as an example, let us know that or if you have an opportunity to work in a certain segment a bit, let us know that or if you have a desire to be one the senior executives, let us know that. We need to know because, again, we have to identify. Again, when you have a lot of people like that, you have as many individuals as we have, it makes it more difficult. I’ve asked that and people have told me that. In my mind, I know there’s certain individuals now that have that desire to be the next Vice President or the next President of Helena and we’ll do everything we can, I’ll do everything I can to give those opportunities.
All the best,
Phillip Van Hooser
During a recent Leaders Ought To Know retreat, I had the good fortune to sit down with the President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, Mike McCarty. We discussed a number of leadership development issues. Here are excerpts from our conversation on the importance of organizational succession planning.
Phil: Mike, you were asked a number of questions a few minutes ago, but one of the questions that intrigued me was what’s it like to be the president of a $1.3 billion multinational company, primarily, in the United States, but serving countries around the world. How do you answer a question like that?
Mike: Well, I think the question was what is my biggest challenge of running almost a $4 billion dollar corporation and the response I gave to the individual was people is probably the biggest opportunity and challenge. When you have that many folks out there, you’re going to have a tremendous amount of opportunities. You’re biggest asset in the company are people, but your biggest opportunity are also people because with people, it also leads itself to change with companies. We’re in a constant state of change in our personal live, professional lives and we need to help, I need to help, guide that and lead that, which then creates the opportunities on the people side of the business and why we need to do these things.
My job in the company is to look out at where we’re going to go in the next five or ten years. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that all our managers and all our employees are going to take care of the day-to-day business and the annual business. We’ve got to look and I’ve got to look at the management team for the future. So the challenge, again, comes back to where do we go, how do we change and how do we communicate that change.
Phil: You mentioned just a minute ago the importance of the people and also the challenge associated by people. Talk to me a little bit about succession planning within Helena Chemical. You know that most of the people that will be watching this are people who are focused in on leadership and leadership development, so on and so forth. First of all, how do you identify leaders within the organization both current and future and then how do you develop them so that you can prepare them for the challenges that are to come, as well?
Mike: That’s a good question and a timely question for us because we’re in the process right now with my executive team. We’re going through a new strategic plan for our next five years. One of the things that has surfaced and we knew this is the area succession planning and it goes back to my generation of the company when we joined the company. I jokingly say we’re a bunch of young kids. We’re a bunch of 25 year olds that joined the company. We’ve all been here a long time now and we’re starting to see the retirements take place.
This is something that Helena will experience that we’ve never really experienced before and that’s going to be more of a mass retirement staggered over the next five years. Now, that leads itself to the opportunity of who replaces everyone in the company and succession planning. I’ve asked all of them to start to identify the next generation of who has that opportunity, of who may want to move to different geographies because, again, being a nationwide company, I think that, again, is a different opportunity. The younger generation I see today is not as prone to move as what we were when I was coming up in the industry.
Well, we’ve done a relatively good job of identifying those individuals. Now, it’s going to be creating the opportunities for them and as that takes place and we’re in the process of doing that right now. One of the things I’m trying to do is get that next generation in here to the corporate office because when you move to a corporate office, it’s a different environment from when you’ve been out in the field. We’ve all experienced that, but until you’re here, you really don’t know. My wish would be that we would have a very seamless transition of individuals and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish right now where we have staggered retirements of the executive team where they don’t all go at one time.
We’re starting to lose them now and if I just look at it for the 20 or 25 people that we have in that group, I feel we’re in very, very good shape. Where we’re going to have our opportunities, it’s kind of like the domino effect. As people move up into management and then they move up into the senior roles at the field level, who takes the place at the sales rep level and our branch manager level? That means we’re going to have to do a higher level of recruiting. So we’re going to need more people. We’re going to need more of that younger generation coming in, which is contrary to what’s really going on with the business in the U.S. today when we look at unemployment. We’re going to be out there actively recruiting at universities right now to try to take care of this issue that you had talked about with succession planning.
I’ll share more from this conversation in the coming days.
Phillip Van Hooser