Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Lesson Learned

There are a few things we can all learn from the recent firing of General McChrystal, some ‘truths’ about leaders and their interaction with their staffs and others.

First, a leader always needs to know what his central message is. So does his immediate staff. So, sell the message. Sure, you may like the old days when you were a: (fill in the blank) fighter pilot, punch-press operator, traveling salesman, etc. You aren’t any more. You’ve been promoted. Leadership, particularly senior leadership, is about communicating the goal, and the strategy to get there. That is your job. Your staff’s job is to facilitate that. Focus on the message.

Second, Don’t fall off message. If you are trying to keep a diverse group of folks together you can’t say disparaging things about them, no matter how far away you are, no matter how obscure the connection. In fact, you shouldn’t even say disparaging things in front of your staff or your personal secretary. Instead, always strive to be as professional as possible. Even if your strategic partner is a mess, don’t say it in public. If it needs to be discussed, discuss it with those who absolutely need to know, and no one else. Remember what your mother told you: if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything. So, keep it professional and analytic.

Third, Expect the press to do their job. If a reporter is walking around your organization – factory floor, ship, whatever – don’t expect that any story that comes out will be sugarcoated because you gave him your time for a few days and a coffee mug with the corporate logo. Reporters are supposed to find stories. Expect them to do so.

Fourth, Look the part. You’ve all heard the line ‘don’t let ‘em see you sweat.’ Well, in fact the line should be ‘only let ‘em see what you want them to see.’ The simple truth is that great ideas can be undermined by the proponent, the leader, being seen as silly or cynical or a hypocrite, whether that is the truth or not.

Fifth, Your Staff Reflects You. Machiavelli (a hard but accurate observer of power and those who wield it) observed that a ‘Prince is known by his counselors.’ If you are a bright guy and you hire a jackass for a close assistant, maybe you aren’t so bright. Be careful whom you put on your staff; make certain you can trust them, and at the same time, always work to ‘raise their game.’ If you ‘let your hair down’ so will they; if you are sloppy, literally or intellectually, they will become sloppy as well. Pick the best staff you can, but always seek to improve your staff.

Sixth, Make sure every position is filled. No one starts the baseball season without a full bullpen. One of the glaring gaps in the article about Gen. McChrystal, and all the articles and discussions that followed, is that nation-building is not a mission of the military. It isn’t even a mission of the state department. Rather, if we are to be successful, it is a mission of the entire government. The glaring omission in all of the discussions about Gen. McChrystal and Afghanistan is that there is no mention of the lack of presence of all the other team members. Where are the people who might help Afghanistan with energy, agriculture, water and roads, sewerage treatment in the cities and towns? Are there people working on each of these? Yes. But at the senior staff level what you see is a large number of soldiers, a smaller number of retired soldiers, and a few career foreign service members. The senior staff needs to reflect the full breadth and depth of the problem in order to ensure that the planning and execution also reflect the full breadth and depth of the problem. That is as true in Afghanistan as it is in any other organization.

Last, a leader is always ‘on.’ Time and again in the article about Gen. McChrystal we are provided examples of the General making various gestures or comments to members of his staff. Certainly, some of the men who work for him are old friends. In most cases that behavior is only acceptable if it were just between the two men, or within a very small, intimate circle of friends. It is certainly not acceptable when the reporter was present or when they are outside the office or hotel room. The fact of the matter is that the leader – general, president, CEO, etc. – is always ‘on.’ Every word, every act, every facial expression will be read by someone, and passed along – for good or ill. If you are confident and upbeat all the time, that will come across. If you are convinced that you are in a hopeless position, that will come across. To say, ‘well, I was just sitting and thinking,’ or ‘I had a bad night’ is meaningless. The message is already ‘sent.’ The leader sends messages all day, every day.

You need to decide what messages you want to send and then live that every moment you are out of the house or on the phone. You must always be on.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Being Responsible

Being in charge means being responsible.

While politicians routinely blame their predecessor for all sorts of things, the fact is that, at best such behavior is childish. While it is true that no matter how hard you try you can’t change everything immediately, the minute you take over, take ‘command,’ you are responsible. The bigger the organization you are in, the longer it will take for you to ‘turn it around.’ But no matter how large, you are the one who is responsible. Even in the case of a President taking over a country in a recession, once he is President he is immediately responsible for changing the trend lines. He cannot end the recession, but he can change how long we are in the recession and what the economy looks like when we recover.

More to the point, a leader is supposed to be concerned about the future, not the past. Looking for someone to blame after you take charge is childish enough and wastes energy; it’s unproductive. Looking for someone to blame after you have been in charge for more than 6 months is poor leadership.

Furthermore, despite the degree of difficulty facing you, no matter how bad the situation, you are immediately responsible for the leadership beneath you. If the head of this or that department that works for you is not competent, or is simply not doing their jobs, you need to have a process in place within days that will identify that fact, and then you are responsible for correcting it. If inspections and monitoring are not adequate, or you feel they are not adequate (the same thing, actually), then you need to act immediately to change them. You are NOW in charge. You need to make certain that you communicate your rules, your performance standards, down into the organization. You should be prepared to do that on the day you take charge. From that point on, the decision-making at every echelon in your organization is shaped by your policies and guidance.

Claiming that your predecessor is to blame months after taking office is nothing more than a dodge and a sign of poor leadership. Claiming that a poor decision made by one of your subordinates is the fault of your predecessor is an indication of no leadership whatsoever.

Despite the pleas of the preachers of ‘feel good’ leadership and the power of happy thoughts, the fact remains that Accepting Responsibility actually equates to Accepting Blame. It is rightly said that victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan. Leading means being responsible. If responsibility was painless and without any negative ‘cost,’ leadership would be simple. But responsibility only is a burden because it means that you will have to accept the role of the leader when things don’t go right.

No matter what happens, when you have a marked success, there will be all sorts of people who will claim the accolades. When there is failure, they will all seek to deflect the fingers pointed at them. Good leaders don’t ‘deflect,’ they accept the blame and then move on to fix the problem, the process and the organization.