Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leadership and Manners

There has been a lot made about the behavior of various people over the past several weeks. There is also a point to be made about personal behavior in regard to effective leadership. The point is simply this: behave yourself. And you should insist that those who work for you, especially those who are in leadership positions, also behave themselves. Assuming your mother wasn’t Ma Barker, it is probably best to remember those things your mother used to tell you: don’t yell, don’t make a scene, etc.

This is more than simply good manners, it is an essential part of good leadership. This is true for the simplest of reasons: it’s not about you. If you are leading people, it is about the goal, whatever that goal is, whether you are Alexander trying to conquer the known world, or Ray Kroc trying to make a hamburger faster and cheaper. Making a scene shifts the focus from the goal to you. Which means you are losing ground on your goal. So here are some simple rules, which may sound like they came from your mother. But they are worth practicing and, as important, enforcing.

Don’t yell. Yelling is a lousy way to get people to pay attention to your thoughts. I have a general set of instructions that allow yelling in the following cases: someone is shooting at you; the building is on fire; you’ve won the lottery; your team just scored. If you are alone you may yell at your computer when it loses a file, or at the news for saying something stupid. Other than that – no yelling.

As for all those TV shows and movies where the heroes yell at each other, I suspect that the directors and writers have never been in real high stress positions with good leaders. If they had, they would find there is very little yelling.

Does this mean that there have been effective, even great, leaders who haven’t followed these rules? Yes. But they have been exceptions to the rule. And, in fact, even a cursory review of history will show that they were rarely as harsh with their followers as history has painted some of them. Even as terrifying a figure as Genghis Khan was known among his people as a fair leader who took care of his troops.

If you have manager who yells a lot, you need to keep an eye on him.

Don’t interrupt. When others are talking, listen. And pay attention. Was the Congressman wrong to interrupt the President? Yes. And he appropriately apologized. (That some other Congressmen and Senators have, over the past several years, called the last President both a liar and someone who took glee in the death of US soldiers, and booed during the course of his address to Congress, and didn’t fully apologize, is a disgrace.)

Again, your mother was right: don’t interrupt. When someone else is speaking, listen to him. Let them make their point. Communicating is not a one-way street. If you really are concerned about the goal of the organization, and not your ego, you may find they have a good point. And if you don’t listen, you won’t understand their point and won’t be able to explain to them, if necessary, what issue they missed and why the organization is doing ‘A’ and not ‘B.’ This process of listening and then explaining sends the clear signal that you are not only interested in what the people in your organization think and say, but that you want to hear it, and that if there is a difference of opinion, that you are going to help them understand why the organization is doing one thing and not the other. People will feel included and will get behind your position.

On the other hand, if you find you can’t explain your position well enough to convince the doubters, it may be because your position has some holes in it. Listening and engaging in polite give and take will help you realize that fact a great deal faster then yelling and interrupting.

And paying attention is just as important. I recall a session of Congress several years ago where a picture of the Congressmen and Senators showed a number of them sitting and reading material that clearly was not the President’s speech. Or sleeping. There is a word for that kind of thing: rude. Don’t do it. Don’t let others do it.

So, if one of your managers constantly interrupts others, it is probable that they are poor communicators.

No Name Calling. First, don’t do it. Under any circumstances. Second, if someone says something, don’t assume you can understand his motivations. Because ‘Joe’ said ‘X’ doesn’t give you or anyone else the right to claim he’s racist, a sexist, an elitist or any other kind of ‘ist.’ If you think his behavior has crossed a line of decency, go talk to him yourself – one on one. Then you may need to act. But based on some clear facts, not hearsay and assumptions and name calling.

Three Strikes – You’re Out. Repeat Performances Shouldn’t Be Excused. Since I assume that my readers are all bright professionals, this won’t apply to you. But it applies to your junior executives. If ‘Joe’ keeps getting himself into embarrassing positions where he is yelling and then apologizing, yelling and apologizing, yelling and apologizing, he probably is the wrong the guy to be in front of people. Get him some professional help. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are very few, and should be reserved for those who show dramatic leadership and management skills.

While this may sound ‘preachy,’ the fact is that polite discourse is essential to convince people to pursue Your goal. You are trying to make people follow your ideas, and that means they must come along willingly, joyfully. Of course you should be passionate about your ideas, but you also need to respectful of others. Don’t forget that and, most especially, don’t let your junior executives forget it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sharpening the Axe

Abraham Lincoln used to say that ‘if I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening the axe.’ The meaning is clear: if you want to do something right, you spend time in preparation.

Of course, preparation – sharpening the axe – can entail many things. But, in virtually every setting it means investing in your people so that they can actually do the job assigned. That means training, education, making sure they have the right tools to do the tasks assigned, and the opportunity to practice and develop expertise with those tools.

Yet I heard it again just a few days ago: a friend of mine who works in a very large organization (hundreds of thousands of employees) and the problem was: “we don’t have time to do ‘that,’” the ‘that’ in question being a comprehensive training plan. In a sense, he was right. His bosses were absolutely not going to give them enough time to train, to sharpen the axe. They wanted results right now. There is a word for that kind of thinking: stupid.

I had a boss many years ago who would confide in me at times like that. And he always ended those sessions with some words of wisdom that I have never forgotten: “How come we never have time to do things right the first time, but we always have time to do things right the second time?”

And we always did. We would receive a poorly thought out directive from higher headquarters. We would reply that to do ‘A, B and C’ we would need to set aside some people, pull the problem apart, focus some assets, and work out a scheme that would tell us which people, and which assets to place against the task, and how much time it would take to get the job done right. This, of course, was rarely acceptable to higher headquarters. We would be directed to begin and we would dutifully plunge on. Invariably we would come up short because they had tasked us to do something for which none of us was trained or equipped. Then there would be some yelling and screaming and then we would start again. This time we would be allowed to get the right people, the right training and the right tools and we would finally finish the task. And so, instead of costing X dollars and taking Y days to complete, it would cost 2 X dollars or more, and take 2 Y days or more to finish the task.

Is there a way to stop this? Yes. It is simple but for most leaders and managers, it is very painful.

1) Give an order to you subordinate, tell him what to do. Don’t tell him how to do it.
2) Trust your subordinates. This means you must believe them to be competent. If you don’t believe they are competent, fire them and put in somebody you do believe is competent.
3) If your subordinate tells you he needs assets and training to complete the task, give it to him (See #2 above).
4) Believe in training and preparation.

There will be those who will say “I can’t.” You’re wrong. You must. If you ‘can’t,’ then your business model is flawed. It’s as simple as that. Good organizations train and prepare. The better the organization, the more time and investment is made in preparing, in sharpening the axe. Great organizations spend what may seem like huge amounts of time and effort in preparation. That’s why they are great. The preparation comes first, not second. Invest in your people, and in your organization; sharpen the axe.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Here's a simple question: Do you like to be kept in the dark? People walking around you know what’s going on while you have no idea? People stop doing one thing and start doing another and you don’t know why? People moving from one job to another and no one is telling you?
It stinks, doesn’t it?

There is no more disturbing a situation then to be ‘outside the huddle.’ But, the fact is that many organizations operate like that on a daily basis and don’t even recognize it.

To make it clear, I am not talking about either real government or corporate secrets. There are obviously many situations where certain information needs to be protected. Everyone knows about soft drink companies that keep their formulas within a small group of people, as an example. And there are some issues that management can’t discuss by law, except within well-defined parameters, such as efforts to acquire a publicly traded company. And certainly, there are many cases within the federal government and the military where safety demands that only certain people know certain things.*

What I am talking about are those situations where upper management simply stops talking. A number of years ago I was working on amending a particular strategic plan and one of the folks I was working with noted – in private - that “we’re not actually doing this,” that is, the organization wasn’t really following the existing plan. He then went on to complain that the organization didn’t have a plan. I corrected him at that point. The organization clearly had a plan, it just wasn’t the one we had labeled as ‘the plan.’ They – the senior leadership - had a plan, but they weren’t sharing it with the rest of us.

In short, all of us were being kept in the dark. The plan we were working on was pretty much useless, and the goals we were working towards – or thought we were – weren’t the ones the boss was working towards. We never found out for certain what those goals were.

The net result of all that type of behavior is an organization that simply repeats what it has been doing, but isn’t making any progress towards ANY goal – because the goal of the boss is not what the ‘rank and file’ are working towards.

If you really want to, you can run your organization that way. It is inefficient and ineffective, it destroys morale and team cohesion, and it wastes your people on unproductive activity. It also guarantees that you will never achieve anything approaching excellence in your endeavors.

Or, you can choose to include your people in your decision-making and in your planning. You can agree to keep as few secrets as possible and work as hard as possible to communicate with your people. There are those who will object that you need to keep this or that secret. I saw a poster recently that said something to the effect that companies that aren’t interested in keeping secrets aren’t really interested in competing. I suppose that that might be true in one or two very narrow, high technology industries, but the most competitive industries in the world keep few secrets. In fact, the free movement of information has become a hallmark of most of these industries.

The fact is that clear communication is necessary for excellence in execution. Watch a few football games on a Saturday in Fall and you will see this: good teams will very quickly learn to read the other teams; among evenly matched teams more plays will fail because a player was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing then will fail because the other team ‘read’ the offense. And why was the player in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing? Because he didn’t get the play. It may be his fault, maybe he wasn’t listening, but communication failed.

* Though, having lived in that world for many years, many times people got ‘carried away’ and restricted distribution of various pieces of information to such a degree that it negatively affected the situation.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Thoughts on Span of Control

I listened to a report on the news today that said that the President was appointing his 37th ‘Czar.’ Frankly, I didn’t know the number was that high. I have seen one list that showed he had only 34. One resigned over the weekend, and another was established over the weekend so the number should be the same. The President also has 15 cabinet members who report directly to him, as well as the Vice President, his Chief of Staff and several other officers such as the Director of National Intelligence. All in all, President Obama has, at least on paper, more than 50 people reporting directly to him.

The point of this article is not to comment on the debate as to whether the appointment of czar’s is either constitutional or appropriate; that is for another time and place.  The question is whether it is effective?  The question is whether having dozens of people nominally reporting to one person exceeds the limits of Span of Control.

Span of Control is a term and a concept that has fallen out of favor over the past decade or so, not that it ever had a great following. That is because Span of Control speaks directly to one of the great barriers to effective leadership and management: hubris. Over the past decade or so, as computers have become omnipresent, the idea of the ‘flat organization’ has come into its own. Normally proselytized by ‘management consultants’ and ‘deep thinkers’ with little leadership experience, the idea is that the modern manager can have dozens of people reporting directly to him or her and can effectively lead though such an organizational structure.

In fact, this is the worst kind of nonsense.

If by ‘manage’ we mean nothing more than the collection of performance data from a number of different offices, and there is no requirement to either consult or mentor the individual reporting to the ‘manager;’ no requirement to provide any guidance; no need to understand both the subordinates’ operations; nor any need to understand the subordinates’ responsibilities or issues, then it might be possible to have several dozen people reporting directly to one ‘manager.’ But, in such a situation, the ‘manager’ is not really managing (never mind leading); instead, the ‘manager’ is doing nothing more than collating data and keeping a report card on performance.

It has become popular to suppose that ‘flat organizations,’ in which a hierarchy is replaced by a large group of who interact as peers, are more capable and responsive in today’s information economy. That is true in specific cases. But the key to those cases is that flat organizations will work as long as decisions can be made by consensus, such as in the early stages of some – but not all - research and development.

The problem with flat organizations is simply this: people are people. Certainly, if you have 15 or 20 motivated people working on the early stages of a project it can be quite exhilarating to watch them move forward as a team, to develop new ideas, to arrive at innovative solutions. But, eventually there comes a time when decisions have to be made and egos have to be assuaged. In fact, the first is the easier of the two. Someone must be responsible for making the decision, and that is the manager, not the group. That can be done fairly simply, at least relative to the second half of the ‘equation.’ The second half of the equation is getting everyone focused on the operation AFTER the decision has been made. After the decision, whatever it is, some efforts will be terminated, some ideas – the ‘children’ of some of the people involved – will be crossed off the list, and those who were the creators of the surviving ideas become the ‘firsts among equals.’ It is now up to the leader to motivate everyone else and keep the organization moving forward.

To everyone out there who says ‘that doesn’t really happen,’ my answer is that it does, in every organization on the planet. And the manager will need to spend time with every single individual in the organization to keep them motivated, as well as with select groups – who will respond differently then the individuals inside that group. These responses will rise up among the most professional, senior, educated people, just as they will among a group of high-school students working in a fast food restaurant.

So, how many people can a manager ‘manage?’ In those rare ‘flat’ organizations that really do work well, I have seen very capable managers who are completely tapped out at 12 to 15 people. It is first and foremost an issue of the complexity of the issues at hand. As the complexity increases, the level of emotional involvement will also increase and the number of people that can be managed will decrease. For very complex problems the number of people who can be effectively managed – by the most capable managers and leaders – is remarkably low: three or four people.

Most people will respond that that is silly, that they have seen all sorts of organizations that have considerably more than four people reporting to the CEO. Furthermore, few CEOs report any difficulty with having 8 or 10, even 12 direct reports.

The answer, of course, is that most CEOs and Presidents suffer from both hubris (and believe the are doing a great job when they aren’t), and as important, despite the fact that they may have 8 or 10 or even 20 people reporting directly to them on paper, in fact another thing happens. Instead of 20 people reporting directly to them, in fact, most of the people who ‘report’ to them are adrift, working for no one most of the time.

What happens is this: the Boss (CEO, President, whatever) sets up his organization with a dozen or more people reporting directly to him. He spends several months trying to keep fully informed on the progress of each of these people. Eventually (usually within three or four months, but often less than that) the Boss becomes intellectually and emotionally exhausted from the effort and begins to focus on just a few key areas, usually either the ones he is intimately familiar with, or the ones that he was brought in to fix. The Boss then spends the vast bulk of his time focused on just two or three issues, and for the most part ignores everything and everyone else. These become the key items the Boss talks about all the time. Then, at seemingly random intervals, or whenever someone else brings up an issue in one of the other, non-key areas, the Boss ‘dives in’ up to his elbows and stirs things up. Then, as soon as interest wanes, that issue is abandoned and the Boss moves to another issue or back to the two or three key issues. In this way some issues are dealt with frequently if erratically, and others will seemingly disappear from view for weeks or months at a time.

Speaking of limits to span of control has almost become heresy. I have heard various consultants refer to ‘span of control’ as ‘yesterday’s news.’ When questioned they inevitably are found to have little or no management or leadership experience. More disturbing, many senior leaders are seemingly unconcerned with the issue, firmly believing that they can manage both the detailed information flow and the even more difficult personnel issues associated with a dozen or more people working together. The fact is that they can’t. As tasks become more complex, the span of control must decrease if you want to provide real leadership. And, as people ‘mature’ and develop ever-larger egos, managing the interrelationships among peers becomes more difficult.

In short, Span of Control is a real issue; you may think it doesn’t apply to you. If so, you’re wrong.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bonuses, Payraises, Promotions and Other Unpleasentries

What can possibly be unpleasant about a bonus or a pay hike or a promotion? To the recipient, very little. Everyone likes a pat on the back, and if it’s ‘tangible,’ all the better. But if you are the one who identifies who gets a bonus, then you are also the ‘guy’ who identifies who doesn’t get a bonus (or a pay raise, or a promotion), and telling people why they ‘didn’t make the cut’ is one of the more difficult and unpleasant duties of being a leader.

No matter what system you use, no matter how you go about these issues, eventually, you still must come face to face with the guy who didn’t get the promotion which he certainly believes he deserved. So, what can you do to ease this process?

The answer is both difficult and simple: Communicate. Communicate early and often. There are, in fact, four facets of communication that you need to address.

One – Communicate - Organization wide communication that tells your vision of performance. This sets the stage for more specific communication that will follow by setting overall standards and showing how those standards fit into the organization as a whole. In short, you need an organizational performance statement: this is what is expected out of this department, this division, this plant, etc., over the next year. Communicate this performance message to the entire organization regularly enough that everyone understands it.

Two – Guidelines for individuals. Have clear work-place performance guidelines: what is the standard for performance (also, what is unacceptable); how pay increases, bonuses and promotions will be distributed; if you have any ‘perks,’ how these are allotted also should be clearly spelled out. This would include such items as special parking places, executive dining rooms, etc.

My own experience is that most perks, except in very restricted forms, normally have a negative impact on the organization as a whole, while providing only a minor benefit to the recipient. For example, parking; either give everyone an assigned parking space, based on some clear criteria for assigning where (longevity moves you closer to the front door, for example), or don’t have ANY assigned parking. Most perks eventually devolve into playing favorites; and whether that is true or not, that is how most people perceive them.

At the same time, keep the guidelines simple – spend some time with key advisors, get feedback from your people, and turn this into a positive experience for everyone. Don’t make the guidelines complex or the process of understanding and following them onerous, nor should you turn this into a long, tortured Byzantine requirements list.

It is also best to make these guidelines demanding. What you must avoid is setting standards that allow everyone to be ‘4.0’ performers. In fact, the best system would make it impossible for anyone to have a ‘perfect score,’ which is not to say that any performance system must have a ‘scorecard’ of some sort. Setting very high standards can be a very powerful motivator, and at the same time allows people to avoid the frustration of seeking to be ‘perfect.’

Three – Counseling – There needs to be regular Counseling. Establish a formal process to provide performance reviews to everyone several times throughout the year. Personally, I think it needs to be at least quarterly. People should not only know how well they are doing, they need to have enough awareness that they can respond to the appraisal and make corrections and not ‘lose’ a year. The more frequent the counseling, the easier it becomes and the less time will be spent trying to finesse these meetings. (Time must still be committed to preparing for these meetings, but as frequency drops the normal response is to make these meetings very formal and guarded. That is what you are trying to avoid.)

There also needs to be an informal counseling mechanism, that is, one that is not on anyone’s calendar, but allows you as the manager to do your job. Remember, the point of counseling is not to scare people or identify someone so you can fire them; the point is to improve both individual performance and overall organizational performance. Accordingly, you, and your managers, need to make a point of frequent review of the performance of those who work for you and when you notice changes, provide comment. Thus, if one of your people is showing a marked improvement in performance, it should be noted (and if it is sustained, a public notice is best). If there is a decrease in performance, you should provide counseling as soon as possible, in private.

Fourth – Feedback – there must be a Feedback mechanism, a process that provides an avenue of communication from the people of your organization ‘up’ the chain. This allows them to tell you how well they think they are doing, and how well they think the organization is doing. The feedback mechanism also allows them to voice frustrations if they feel that performance is not being properly evaluated.

Feedback mechanisms also should allow you as the boss to better identify managers who are either positively or negatively affecting performance. To facilitate this, feedback needs to be reviewed not only by immediate supervisors but also by at least the next echelon and perhaps two echelons. You also need to solicit feedback on how You, the boss, are doing. This is hard; people will be reticent to speak the truth, or will lay it on thick – or will vent – you need to do this frequently enough that you get beyond most of this, and then – write it down and review comments from lots of folks and see what stands out – good and bad. You will find kernels of truth in there.

Several other traits to aim for include:

Clarity. Keep clear, simple records of counseling and evaluations. If you need to replace a manager tomorrow, the new ‘guy’ needs to be able to understand what is happening and why.

Fairness. You need to not only be fair, you need to appear to be fair. Take a close look at what you are doing and how you are doing it and adjust your procedures until everyone trusts the system. This will pay big dividends in the end.

Transparency. Be transparent. There is no worse trait of any system of promotion or awarding of bonuses or position then one that keeps everything a mystery. Not only does it eventually lead everyone to believe that there is a cabal, an in crowd, it also prevents many people from doing what is necessary to improve their own performance. There are organizations that routinely have promotion processes that are confidential and when someone is promoted very quickly or when someone suddenly fails to be promoted when everyone expected it, there is no specific explanation. Instead, vague generalities are issued and people are left to guess.

To avoid that, insist on transparency: identify the selection criteria as part of overall corporate policy, and when selections need to be made to promote people, make certain that you are using those criteria. If you need to change those criteria – tell everyone. And, when selections are made it should be clear that those promoted fit the selection criteria.

Limits. Finally, it should be obvious, given the level of effort involved in a sound counseling and evaluation process, that there is a practical limit to how many people you can evaluate. This is another limit on span of control. If you had 50 people working directly for you and you were trying to evaluate their performance and approve bonuses and make recommendations for promotions for all 50, and you were being diligent in making sure that you were giving them regular feedback and counseling, etc., you would find you don’t have enough time in the week to do everything you need to do. If you are performing the observations, evaluations and assessments completely on your own, it will be difficult to supervise more than a dozen people and do a thorough job.

Proper evaluations and recommendations for promotions, etc., require close observation. In some jobs with a high degree of routine, a simple assembly line perhaps, it may be possible to thoroughly supervise up to 20 people directly, with no assistance. But if the assembly line is even the least bit complex and requires regular decision-making by the workers this number will quickly fall.* As the tasks of the workforce increase in complexity, the task of making accurate assessments will force you to continually reduce the number of people being supervised by any one person. Experience will help you set those limits. Once you know those limits, you need to resist the temptation to exceed that number.

Next, we’ll discuss how promotions and pay increases ought to be implemented.

* Some service industries reward personnel based on simple criteria, total sales, for example. These systems can work, but they also produce a work force that is mercenary in the strictest sense of the word. There is no motivation for the organization as a whole, and overall organizational goals or department goals are meaningless.