As I’ve written previously in Leadership 101 and Why Most Corporations Homogenize Remarkable People, great leadership is more about trust than it is about charisma. Too often these days, leaders are chosen for their alpha tendencies and star appeal rather than their competence, vision and ability to motivate a team. Throughout my experience, I’ve observed five unspoken rules top leaders follow to earn trust—and draw great performances from their teams. In each and every case, they:
Start with a vision—Great leaders have to know where the company is heading. People trust their judgment and their ability to see through the politics and have a sense of the right course. Employees gain trust that their leader knows what the company is going to look like and they are energized by the picture he or she is painting.
Speak with actions rather than words – Quite simply, this means the best leaders practice what they preach. Employees have to believe they really know what they’re doing and that they’re capable. Leaders must be truly competent and willing to roll up their sleeves to do what needs to be done. If they do, they earn trust.
Hear the good, the bad and the ugly—Great leaders don’t shoot the messenger or encourage sugar coating—they listen to the people who’ll talk straight about a situation. They want people to be comfortable bringing bad news. At the same time, they encourage people to follow each problem with a thoughtful discussion of opportunities.
Have the “get it” factor—People must trust that a leader understands them. In other words, not only do they get “it,” but they get “them.” Leaders understand what it’s really like to work in the current environment and they have people’s interests at heart. The best leaders are not always liked by everyone, but they are respected.
Keep a backbone rather than assign blame—Leaders have to be comfortable making tough decisions. There’s a lot of weight on their shoulders, but some of it can be shared because they know how to pick an excellent team. Top leaders know how to take responsibility and do. If something goes wrong under their watch, they look in the mirror and accept the blame rather than pointing their finger at everyone else.
As far too many of us have observed, there are a lot of charismatic people in senior positions who are not great leaders. They may be good on their feet, but they lack judgment and competence. They may be decisive, but they lack vision and insight. A true leader brings out the best in people and leads by example. They’re rare and always manage to stand out from the crowd, but that’s because, first and foremost, they’re willing to stand in it.
One of the great things about social networking is that it spurs interesting dialog. My last blog post, Do You Know How to Grant Greatness generated a lively and fascinating discussion in the Sales and Marketing group on LinkedIn. The question posed by group member Daniel Surman inspired the title of this post: What makes an exceptional manager in today’s business world? Read on… and see if you’ve experienced leadership that rises above the fray.
Here is a segment of the dialog between two members, Daniel Surman and Dave Eisley (posted here with their permission). I’d be hard pressed to describe it better…
Dave Eisley: “From my own personal experience, great managers surround themselves with talented people and give them the space to do what they do best. That’s not to say they don’t train and problem solve, but most of all they provide business strategy and organization. They were great coaches. The BEST managers I have worked for taught me about “macro” business views, to help me better understand the business environment and all the factors that came into play–then they trained me how to get better. However, MOST of the people I have worked for have engaged in power struggles, offered vague, inconsistent direction and spent most of their time “protecting” their place in the hierarchy. None of those particular businesses ever grew.
This is the best outline of a leadership role I have ever seen:
Provide an inspiring vision and strategic alignment, launch a crusade
Help people connect their personal goals to business goals
Make relentless innovation a religion
Encourage entrepreneurial creativity and experimentation
Involve everyone, empower and trust employees
Coach and train your people to greatness
Build teams and promote teamwork, leverage diversity
Motivate, inspire and energize people, recognize achievements
Encourage risk taking
Make business fun
…I have been in the workforce for over 15 years in sales, management, and training roles and have experienced exactly ONE senior executive or manager that even came close to this ideal. Do you think this is unrealistic?”
Daniel Surman: “In my 15+ years of backend marketing and now sales I have only had no more than two managers that possessed these traits.”
Wow. Sadly these are not great odds.
As I have mentioned before, a truly great leader is rare and, by example, begins to stand out from the crowd. It’s not how polished or “alpha” you are, it’s how you lead and inspire your team. So, an interesting question to follow up with is…
A great leader grants greatness. He or she recognizes the natural ability of others and allows them to practice their gift. Too often, leaders are chosen by their pedigree and/or ability to perform well on their feet. In reality, this only covers a small part of the leadership criteria. The more important part is whether the leader can get his/her entire organization to thrive and can effectively inspire them to do their best. The activity of leadership is not about looking good behind a podium. It’s about fine-tuning an organization so that individuals uniquely master their trade, while fully contributing their gifts to the larger whole. Think of an orchestra—it’s not how the conductor looks on the stand that matters. It’s how the conductor inspireseach musician to play his/her individual best to create a harmonious, splendid and orchestrated sound.
I once knew of a leader in an organization who had multiple Ivy League degrees, dressed and looked like the one in charge, was good in front of a crowd, and was certainly smart—but made uninspired and unimaginative business decisions time and time again. He selected an elite few on the executive team who had his ear and couldn’t rally the rest of the team together. Needless to say, it wasn’t too long before capable people shut down and the organization began to fall apart. The chosen model of the future became “efficiency,” which called for massive centralization of all critical functions—even the thinking! In this model, all “thought leaders” would be at the headquarters location (heaven help the organization if a local disaster hit!) and the rest of the offices around the world would execute “the-thinking-that-was-thought-of-elsewhere.” No big ideas required outside of those glass walls! Well that might seem like a way to drive efficiency and lower costs—but what about the concept that a good idea can come from anywhere? And what about inspiring people to be inventive and do their best? What happens to the motivation of a capable leader of another location when he/she finds out that the “good-idea patent” is owned solely by headquarters? You can just feel the inspiration and enthusiasm melt through the floor. The best people don’t need to be managed or thought for—and you want the best people in as many places as you can possibly find them.
True, there is a balance between centralization and anarchy. I would argue that leadership at the most profound level is the kind that empowers greatness, leads by example and then lets capable people shine. It is this type of leader that is hardest to find. One who listens for passion and commitment, takes responsibility if a team is not flourishing and makes a decision that goes against the grain.
The moment you need to manage someone tightly, or limit their ability to think independently, is the moment you’ve either made a hiring mistake or have clamped down on innovation. Hire well, grant greatness to your team—and then watch the orchestration of something truly remarkable unfold.
What if you came into work one day and discovered that overnight your company lost its ability to pay you. The entire company bank account had – poof! – disappeared, a victim of outside financial fraud. Would you chip in and see what you could do, or would your last day of pay, be your last day?
Bob Gutermuth, President of Dialog, found out on February 19, 2009 that all of his company—and personal—assets were frozen. The company funds had been held in the Stanford Financial Bank—which was discovered, on that fateful day in February, to be the second largest Ponzi scheme after Madoff. This subject, of course, is near and dear to my heart since I too was hit with the same financially catastrophic news. What I learned is that we all react differently to adversity—some fall victim to it, while others use it to come out stronger. It’s a fascinating subject that inspired my next book called, The Whammy. But I digress…
With every dime frozen indefinitely and faced with having to close its doors, Dialog was in serious trouble. Bob called everyone together and outlined the situation—in detail. For an undetermined period of time, Dialog couldn’t pay its lease, its vendors or its employees. In the spirit of democracy, he opened the books and invited communication. And everyone chipped in to help. Some employees went weeks without pay, while others decided to take time off. The crisis took months to resolve, but Dialog was able to make it through. It’s a great testimony of an organization of people who openly chose to endure financial hardship by rallying together. And it worked.
So the question for today is this… How many of us work for a company that would inspire us to make a choice to go weeks, or months, without pay? How many leaders would dare to be so straightforward and open? And how many employees would choose to be so loyal? What is the difference between a company like Dialog and a company like… (well, I’ll let you fill in the blank!).
I often write about leadership best practices and am pleased to add this example of how democracy in the workplace—along with open communication and open books—saved a company from imminent financial ruin. Not only did this marketing consulting company come back, but it came back stronger. Congratulations Dialog!
To see a related video about Dialog and its democratic practices, click here.
In continuation from a post I’ve done earlier about the difference between Head vs. Heart, we are given two very powerful gifts—rationality and intuition—to help us navigate through life. Our head (the home of rationality) helps us with survival and keeps us safe. Our heart (the home of intuition) allows us to have breakthroughs that are genuine, unique and fresh. In terms of discovering your Professional Destiny, finding harmony in the combination of head and heart is the ultimate combination.
As I wrote in my book, learning to hone your intuition during the interview process is a huge advantage. Here’s an excerpt of how it helped me in business:
“In the workplace, intuition is especially useful for making all-important employee hiring decisions, or for choosing a business partner. For example, during the interviewing process some people are polished interviewers and present themselves well, but then turn out to be much less impressive when they’re on the job. Others are less polished, but you have an inexplicable sense they will be great contributors on a day-to-day basis. Often it all comes down to your intuition. After making a hiring mistake early in my management career, I learned to hone my intuition during the process and pay attention to my gut feelings. I developed what I called “my lower left corner” interviewing process. I took notes throughout the interview and would record the answers to my questions on a sheet of paper in front of me for future reference but in the lower left corner I would record my “impressions”—whatever struck me during the interview. I might be interviewing a perfectly polished individual and get the feeling that he is “cocky” and that would go in the corner. Or I might be interviewing someone who says all the right things but can’t make eye contact with certain questions and I record that as a warning sign.
On the other hand, I may be interviewing someone who is a little nervous, but who I can tell has high integrity and a strong work ethic. I record that in the lower left corner too. After the interview, I weigh my intuition along with the candidate’s answers and experience. If I suspect a possible flaw, I ask myself if it is something we could live with. For example, I may get the feeling that someone will be nervous giving a presentation and then decide that it is okay in this position because someone else will be the public face. Often that is a livable weakness. If the “flaw” that I suspect is of someone’s character or integrity, however, I will not overlook it, no matter what the qualifications or how urgently I need to fill the position. It always comes back to bite you. When I have gone back and compared my “lower left corner” notes to my perceptions of people six months after they are hired, I have found them to be almost always accurate. In fact, it wasn’t that I didn’t intuit the weakness accurately, the only unpredictable variable seemed to be my judgment of how much, or how little, that “weakness” would impact the person’s performance in that particular role.”
When interviewing, it’s important to ask questions to understand a person’s nature, not just focus on their experiences. How do they operate? How do they think? How do they deal with adversity? Do they strike you as honest? Yes, you want someone who has job experience, but you also want someone you trust and want to be around. Honing your intuition can help you find the perfect match.
Last week I gave a talk at the AMD Women’s Forum about Professional Destiny in Business and igniting passion in the workplace. How is this done–especially in larger organizations? The answer is that great productivity and passion at work always starts with people. Always. It begins with identifying your gifts. And if you’re a leader, it also begins with identifying the gifts of others and putting them to good use.
Studies have shown that up to 80% of workers feel that they are not being allowed to use their strengths on a daily basis at work. Why is that? In my experience, I’ve found that there are usually three main reasons:
Many employees are not aware of their natural gifts or strengths. They are not clear on what sets them apart from others and consequently they are unaware of the types of work that fits them best.
Organizations don’t pay enough attention to the difference between natural gifts and acquired skills and experience. They pay too much attention to credentials (resumes and fancy degrees), which are a good indicator of intelligence, but not a great indicator of a natural gift (such as seeing new opportunities or building customer trust).
Many leaders do not have the insight or inclination to identify and match people with their greatest strengths. This is especially true if the strength is not immediately identified as part of the established job description.
In Professional Destiny, I give an example of a helpful exercise to help you identify your gifts. It involves getting crystal clear on the things you love to do, the things you’re naturally good at (sometimes these are the same, sometimes they’re not) and the things you loathe to do, and should avoid altogether. Once you’re clear, initiate conversations with manager and see how you can maximize your time doing what you do best. If you’re a leader, do this exercise with your team.
In essence, many managers homogenize remarkable people because they fundamentally believe that employees are interchangeable parts. They believe that skills and credentials are more important than natural gifts and that with the right training or attitude almost any person can be adapted to any position. The mistake in this logic is that it leaves out the passion factor and employees eventually begin to disengage. Their attitude can change to the “I’m just doing my job” factor. When people are passionate about their work, they are more loyal, innovative and driven to achieve remarkable things. Companies sometimes forget that it’s the people who first and foremost determine whether an organization is great or not. Not the other way around.
Where are you comfortable in your work? Do you consider yourself a great strategist looking into the future, or do you like to perfect things and make them hum? In the following excerpt from my book, Professional Destiny, I define two common types of leaders: the Visionary and the Master of Operations. Check out the indicators and see which type best describes you:
Master of Operations
Takes the vision and makes
Sees the future
Turns ideas into hard and fast reality
Knows what to do next
Knows what to do now
Sets and drives the vision
Likes to build from scratch
More comfortable growing an existing idea, rather than developing one from scratch
Has little patience for process and day-to-day operations; is drained by them
Likes analysis and best practices, and thrives establishing process and operations
Is the inventor who steers the organization in new directions
Is the glue that holds the organization
together and allows it to sustainably prosper
For any company to reach beyond a certain size, it needs both of these types at the top as well as leading each major department or initiative.
A Visionary typically starts an organization, takes it to a certain size, and then confusion and chaos tend to creep in. At this time he or she must find the Master of Operations to get to the next level. In many of my consulting sessions, I worked with people in the top of their organizations to help them determine if they were a Visionary or a Master of Operations.
A Visionary is often the person who starts the organization and for this purpose, let’s assume becomes the CEO. This person is the futuristic leader and the big-picture thinker. Sometimes a Master of Operations starts an organization and can thrive to a certain level, but typically the idea behind the company already exists. A franchise is a good example—the idea for the business is already established, but a strong operational person can make it successful. The Master of Operations is the person best suited to run day-to-day operations. They are detail- and process-oriented and have the gift of getting things done. Rarely is a person a strong Visionary and Master of Operations, yet both are necessary as an organization expands. An organization that has a strong Visionary and Master of Operations often experiences a great deal of growth. Ironically, a common mistake that these organizations make is to believe that the two roles can be interchanged. When the Visionary retires or steps down, the Master of Operations who has been “groomed” often steps in to take his or her place. This rarely works because the Master of Operations cannot be taught to be the Visionary. It is not his or her gift. Similarly, a true Visionary rarely has the patience, interest and discipline for everyday details to keep the company on track.”
Long-term, you will only be motivated if you are doing something you want to do and can see yourself happily sustaining the role. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position that asked you to be something you are not, you know how this feels. You become de-energized and deflated, and oftentimes you cease to be successful as you become less enthusiastic about your role. So take the time to reflect on your skills and be honest about where you best fit. Then watch your satisfaction level—and your contribution soar.
I realize this might be a bit controversial, but I feel compelled to make an observation about companies who spend millions upon millions of dollars to bring in outside management consulting “experts.” The problem is, left untended, these expensive experts can easily homogenize just about everything and quickly sap the creative lifeblood right out of a company.
Homogenization in the workplace often happens in the name of efficiency (danger, danger!) when a company-wide mandate, usually to address a lowest common denominator problem, takes priority over individual greatness, experimentation and diversity of approach. It’s a killer to creativity and a company’s ability to make remarkable breakthroughs.
True, there are some situations that warrant the hiring of an external management consultant. For example, a company may identify a problem and determine that it doesn’t have the specific knowledge and skills in-house to solve it. To permanently hire the right people would be prohibitively expensive, so hiring consultants with proven expertise for the short-term can be a huge benefit.
The typical profile of a Bain, Accenture or McKinsey management consultant is someone who excels academically and graduates from one of the top ten business schools. While this is a pretty good guarantee of intelligence, it is not a guarantee of insight or vision. There’s a big difference. What these consultants do best is apply basic business sense from an outsider’s perspective.
The problem is that their goal is often widespread efficiency—and this left unchecked can easily turn into homogenization. For example a Fortune 100 company now struggling with innovation, paid millions of dollars to a management consulting firm for advice that led them to implement an inflexible “Span of Control” policy. Following the consulting firm’s recommendation, the company implemented a policy across the board requiring managers at a certain level to each have a minimum of eight direct reports.
This does help flatten the organization and reduce levels of hierarchy. However, time after time I would see brilliant individuals hit a wall because getting promoted and making more money meant taking on significant management responsibilities. But what if their skills were “spiky”? What if their gift was mastery of a specific subject and they functioned best as an individual contributor? Is it worth trading someone’s unique and valuable brilliance in order to fit into the “system”? (See earlier posts I’ve written about the unfortunate problem of homogenization in the workplace, “spiky” skills, and empowerment or lack thereof!).
The danger with the taking these recommendations as Gospel, and implementing them across the board, is that they often lead to a “broad brush” approach that kills creativity, stifles people’s gifts and shuts down the career path for spiky contributors.
So before you jump on the ever-popular management consultant bandwagon, remember that these nicely paid experts tend to do well with broad-brush recommendations, but can quickly stifle the ability to do anything truly unique. If you want your company to be inventive and shake up the world, save your money, look within and never, ever homogenize!
In earlier posts, I’ve written about the unfortunate problem of homogenization in the workplace when corporations fail to recognize the natural gifts of their employees, or try to round out their “spiky” skills. Now, it’s time to tackle another favorite subject – empowerment (or lack thereof!). As I’ve said before, homogenization is good for milk, but not for people. It’s a killer to creativity and a person’s ability to produce remarkable results. And it doesn’t help the company much either.
“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant. Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day… Good leaders understand something else: an obsessive routine in carrying out the details begets conformity and complacency, which in turn dulls everyone’s mind. That is why even as they pay attention to details, they continually encourage people to challenge the process.”– Colin Powell, excerpt from 18 Principles of Leadership.
Have you ever been hired into a position because of your ability to think strategically, your remarkable leadership skills and/or your repeated prior success in a similar role, only to have the rug pulled out from under you six months down the road? That’s when you hear the dreaded words “this is the way it’s done, your role is to just execute.” Ughhh. If you’re anything like me, this is an instant energy and enthusiasm sapper. I shut down. I lose my desire to go above and beyond. Whatever insight, or creative approach to solving a problem I have, instantly retreats. I become less motivated, and my mind and contribution are dulled. I’ve often joked that if I’m not empowered I quickly eject myself, or get ejected, from a company. There’s no faking it… it just doesn’t work. Perhaps I’m extreme, but I’ve seen it happen all too often in the sea of cubicles around me. Another name for this is marginalization and its definition is “to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position.” I’m sure you’ll agree, this is not what we aspire to be. It’s not very motivating. And unmotivated employees do not produce the best results.
I know many articles have been written on this subject, but in the name of simplicity, I’ll reduce it to two fundamental ideas:
Empowerment invites people to step up—and keeps them sharp.
Homogenization or marginalization sucks the creativity and commitment right out of people—and keeps them dull.
An organization of people primed to give their best is an organization that maintains a competitive edge and stands above the rest. Best of all, people want to work there. A great leader will strive to keep people sharp and will focus on three things:
Let people make their own decisions within their area of responsibility. Be generous unless a specific experience with the person indicates otherwise.
Give them the ability to affect change.
Allow people to gain the knowledge, skill sets and training to thrive and grow professionally.
The moment a capable person loses the ability to make a decision related to their area of responsibility and experience, they begin to disengage and their contribution becomes less. Yet, the opportunity to exercise personal discretion and complete meaningful work keeps employees engaged. When employees are engaged, great things can happen. You get the best of their minds and they work harder because they are motivated. Breakthroughs occur. It also makes them more resilient to setbacks.
If you hire a capable person, let them stay capable. Bring out the best in them, don’t shut them down. Remember empowerment increases people’s skills and contribution—homogenization shrinks them.
As I wrote in the first post of the “Business Best Practices” series, a person’s gift may be “spiky.” Meaning they are incredibly good at one, two or three things as opposed to being well-rounded in many things. What exactly does this mean?
Well, there may be someone who is brilliant in one specific area, let’s say marketing, and that’s exactly what they want to do. It’s their passion. Now suppose this person works for a typical, large organization—it’s quite possible that he or she may skyrocket up the corporate ladder for a period of time. Then comes the danger point—the potential homogenization. This person’s boss may recognize the incredible talent and put them on a leadership fast-track. To do this, the misguided leader may insist that the world-class marketer become well rounded (uh oh!) and highly develop other skills, say operational expertise and management expertise. In many cases, but not all, becoming well-rounded is quite uninteresting to the marketer and their unbelievable gift becomes marginalized. They spend their time on things like reciting operational statistics and creating PowerPoint presentations and pretty soon 60% of their time is spent outside their brilliant gift of marketing.
This concept of spiky skills applies outside of the corporate world and is quite noticeable in sports. For example, no one would ever think of telling Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (and I’m not even a football fan!) to play a defense position and develop more well-rounded skills. The key is to encourage them do what they do best and build a team around them.
My argument is if someone is spiky, and wants to stay spiky, let them. Be glad for the gift they have and value it. Help develop their skills in other areas just enough to keep them “in the game” and let their brilliance flourish. Build an organization of people who are the very best at what they do. If you are a world-class leader, yourgift will be innovative organizational thinking and knowing how to maximize the talent you have. Just one warning… it may require new, non-homogenized job descriptions!
Professional Destiny® is about finding the career you were born for. I've created this site to help you in your pursuit. Here, you'll find excerpts from my book, as well as new ideas and stories to help you make the most of your natural gifts. We're a community, so please join the conversation!