Category Archives: Leadership

Leadership and the Truth: Lessons from the Vietnam War


7UcgHxn-asset-mezzanine-16x9-mAfzizc.jpg.crop.480x270Like many Americans, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War, the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is currently available on PBS. I was a child during this era in history, and didn’t pay much attention to the news from the battlefields. I remember the protests in the U.S., and I remember the fall of Saigon, but I don’t remember much about the events leading up to the end of the war.

leadership sign 2I haven’t watched all the episodes in the series yet, but from the episodes I have seen, one of my prime take-aways is the importance of truth for leaders in any organization.

Avoiding the spread of Communism in Asia was an important objective for U.S. leaders in the early 1960s. We can argue today over how strategic Vietnam was, but the fact was that political and military leaders in many nations during that era were heavily influenced in their decision-making by the conversion of Eastern Europe into a Soviet bloc. Most of the populations in the U.S. and in Western Europe in these years supported their leaders’ goal of deterring Russian and Chinese expansion.

Despite the laudatory objective, the U.S. decisions in Vietnam went horribly wrong almost from the beginning. Failure of the political and military leaders to seek the truth and tell the truth were large factors in creating the fiasco that Vietnam became.

The need for truth flows in both directions in every organization. Leaders must seek the truth from as many sources as they can, and they must tell the truth in every word they utter. Truth-seeking and truth-telling apply to all interactions with subordinates, peers, superiors, customers, investors, and the public—in short, to every communication with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vietnam series is brutal in pointing out incidents where our military and political leaders did not seek out information from those with first-hand knowledge of conditions on the ground, where underlings feared to volunteer negative information that leaders didn’t want to hear, and where leaders lied or hid information from the public. As a result of these failures to seek truth and to tell truth, bad decisions were made for far too long, and these bad decisions were kept secret from the public who might have opposed the carnage sooner, had they known the facts.

There’s a saying about how generals tend to fight the last war. They learn lessons from that war, and use those lessons in the next conflict. But they might forget other lessons of history or they might see the current battle through the wrong lens because of their focus on the past. That was part of the problem in Vietnam.

Many corporations also fight the wrong problem because they do not see the current challenge clearly. They focus on the wrong competitor, the wrong customer, the wrong product or technology. Their vision is myopic, they don’t see the big picture.

Moreover, leaders in any organization sometimes forget the importance of truth. The reasons for not seeking or telling the truth might vary, but it seems to be part of the universal human condition to only hear what we want to hear and to only say what we wish was true. Part of the rationale is self-preservation, part is wishful thinking, part is a futile attempt to protect those who might be harmed by reality. In the end, however, the truth generally comes out.

Good leaders make an extra effort to seek and to tell the truth, even when it hurts. They look for multiple sources of input and they are candid and transparent in all communications. They realize that facing the truth sooner rather than later is usually best for the organization . . . and, in the long run, for their own reputations.

When have you seen avoidance of the truth cause problems in an organization?

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Remembering September 11: Lessons in Crisis Management


National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTCI’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.

I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.

It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.

Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:

— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.

— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.

— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.

— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.

— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.

Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.

I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.

I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.

A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.

What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?

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How to Avoid Burnout When There’s Always Too Much Work


work-2196609_640Memorial Day weekend is the traditional beginning of summer. In many workplaces the pace slows during the summer months—maybe it slows a little, maybe it slows a lot. For employees who are burned out, the more relaxed pace might help.

Still, in today’s 24/7 world, the slowdown of summer might not be enough. In fact, one of my most stressful times as an employee was one July and August when I was assigned to defend a major lawsuit. I had to take on this new work even though none of my existing work had gone away.

After a few weeks, I realized I couldn’t juggle the caseload I had. I was leaving the office completely frustrated every evening. Finally, I talked to my department head about how to reallocate the workload.

It was that or quit. I was that burned out.

A recent article in Fortune, “The Solution to Avoiding Burnout That Nobody Tells You,” by Laura Chambers, published May 10, 2017, tells of a time when the author’s supervisor told her she would have to learn to drop some balls to avoid burnout. This is counterintuitive for most high-performing employees.

Actually, author Laura Chambers describes a more nuanced approach to managing the workload than simply not doing projects. She describes two kinds of employees, the burnouts and the droppers, and says neither is ideal.

She says that when there’s too much work to accomplish, the best approach is to become a “communicating prioritizer.” She suggests identifying what you believe the top priorities to be, discussing them with your supervisor and team to be sure there is agreement on what the priorities are, then focusing on the highest priorities.

As a manager, Ms. Chambers says about her staff:

“When they communicate their priorities, it shows me that they’re on their game, they’re confident about where they’re headed, and I know I can count on them delivering with confidence. It also demonstrates that they’re managing their own work-life balance, rather than relying on someone else to manage it for them.”

Turns out, I didn’t do so badly in going to my manager to discuss what I could do and what I couldn’t. I was communicating, as Ms. Chambers recommends. However, in retrospect, I see that if I had offered more proactive suggestions myself on how to reallocate the work, I might have done better. My manager and I worked it out, but I put most of the burden of prioritizing on him.

And perhaps Ms. Chambers’s manager could have done better by helping her prioritize than by telling her to drop some balls.

How have you managed periods of burnout in your career?

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The Myth of 100 Days, and the Reality


presidential sealMuch of the news for the past couple of weeks has revolved around how is President Trump doing in his first one hundred days in office. President Trump himself set high expectations before he was inaugurated, and recently he has been trying to tamp down the importance of the 100 day marker. He hit that marker this past Saturday.

One hundred days is an arbitrary period. It is less than a year, less than one-twelfth of a president’s term of office. Nevertheless, it is used as a milestone not only for new Presidents but also for new corporate executives.

I’ve read many articles outlining what a new CEO or CFO or head of Human Resources—or any other “chief” of a corporate function, for that matter—ought to accomplish when he or she takes office. Here are just a few articles telling new executives what to do in their first one hundred days:

Five Myths of a CEO’s First 100 Days, by Roselinde Torres and Peter Tollman, January 30, 2012, in Harvard Business Review

Your First 100 Days as CEO—Eight Must-Avoid Traps, by Scott Weighart, Bates Communications

An Action Plan for New CEOs During the First 100 Days, by M.S.Rao, October 8, 2014, on TrainingMag.com

Assuming Leadership: The First 100 Days, by Patrick Ducasse and Tom Lutz, The Boston Consulting Group

Rather than go through all the recommendations, which they are not entirely consistent, I want to focus on two topics: setting up for long-term success and strong communications. These, in my opinion, are critical marks of new leaders.

1. Long-Term Success

One area in which there is a difference of opinion among the experts is whether to strive for “quick wins” or whether to focus on setting up for success in the long term. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and a few quick wins can win over supporters who will improve the chances of long-term success.

It all depends on whether the wins are what the organization needs or wants, or whether the new leader achieves them by running roughshod over the organization. If the early wins are gained at the expense of long-standing corporate culture, then the new executive will be seen as insensitive.

I believe that long-term success is more important than early victories. It is better for the new executive to be seen as listening to stakeholders than to introduce change without an understanding of the impact on the organization. Obviously, if there are some early wins that most stakeholders approve of, then the new CEO should undertake them immediately. But these actions will have the best impact if they are consistent with the CEO’s long-term strategic plan and vision.

2. Communications

Most commentators agree that it is critical for the new executive to take control of communications, but to balance listening with revealing his or her own vision and priorities. The executive must be seen as a leader, but also as someone who understands the organization’s needs. Particularly for executives hired from the outside, it is critical that the new leader not come across as arrogant and dismissive of the company’s past.

Building relationships with those in the organization is essential. That requires an open dialogue in which the new executive really listens to the stakeholders and also reveals his or her own intentions and beliefs. The incoming CEO will have his or her preferred communications style, but must also adapt to the needs of the organization. Also, it is important to set realistic expectations on what will and will not change and how fast change will come.

So, on these two points, how is President Trump doing?

Each of us will have our own answer to this question. In my opinion, President Trump gets decidedly mixed results.

He has had some short-term successes (the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch, the limited strike on Syria) and some failures (the travel ban, the failure of the House health care reform proposal). But I don’t believe he has defined his vision of long-term success clearly enough. We don’t yet know what he hopes to accomplish in four years, which campaign promises he means to keep and which he does not . . . and maybe also how he has changed since taking office. Without this clarity, it is hard to decide if he is focused on the long term.

On the communications front, his core audience still seems supportive of the President, but he does not appear to be expanding his reach beyond his base. People who didn’t like candidate Trump tweeting now find tweets by President Trump are even scarier. Maybe he doesn’t care about broadening his appeal, but I think it would be wise if he did. And to broaden his appeal, he will have to communicate in more than 140 characters. He will have to appear to listen as well as to speak and to speak at length and with heart.

As with any change, some people will show patience toward President Trump, others will have no patience. Some will be skeptical, but silent. Others will be vocally displeased. Much like what happens in any organization when a new executive enters the scene.

What do you think of President Trump’s first one hundred days?

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Apologize When You Make a Mistake


I’ve written on a couple of occasions about apologies (see here and here). In one post, I said that lawyers often don’t recommend apologies because of the potential legal risk.

But when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Sometimes, an apology is the best solution.

United logoTwo situations have been in the news recently which have caused public relations disasters. In one, United Airlines bumped a man from his seat on a flight because the airline needed the seat to transport crew to another airport to fly another plane. The passenger refused to deplane, and he was injured when airport security physically removed him.

The United Airlines CEO apologized, but his apology was deemed insincere.

Sean_Spicer_(32293609264)_(cropped)

Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

In the second situation, Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary, compared Assad of Syria to Hitler, but said that while Assad had gassed his people, Hitler had not—obviously forgetting the millions of people Hitler had gassed in concentration camps.

Mr. Spicer apologized, but his apology was deemed insufficient.

Mr. Spicer’s error was a mistake of fact. He knows full well—and he should have remembered—that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust. I’m not a Trump fan, nor a Spicer fan, and I cringed when I heard Mr. Spicer’s remark. But I assume his mind deserted him for a moment. Within hours he apologized for his mistake.

In my opinion, that should be the end of the story. But opponents of the Trump Administration do not seem willing to let it go. How can anyone forget the Holocaust? they ask. Well, people’s brains do stupid stuff sometimes. Hasn’t yours?

Shouldn’t we be forgiven our stupidity?

In my opinion, the United Airlines situation is the harder case. This was not a simple error of fact. It was a matter of corporate policy—United bumps passengers when their seats are needed for smooth operation of the airline. And airlines are permitted by law to physically remove passengers from airplanes when the passengers are argumentative or combative.

But somehow, humanity got lost in this situation. A doctor in his sixties, who said he needed to see patients the next day, who had paid for a ticket and had a valid boarding pass, and who was already seated in his assigned seat, was injured when he protested the airline’s random revocation of his seat assignment. (I’ve read conflicting reports on whether United had the right to bump someone who was not technically on an “overbooked” flight.)

Then the CEO said the airline would “re-accommodate” the passenger. This word choice was unfortunate—the man had not been accommodated in the first place, so how could he be re-accommodated? How would “re-accommodation” help his injuries? In addition, the initial corporate statement blamed the passenger for being disruptive.

I think back to the post I wrote about a 2012 post in Contented Cows, in which the author stated that when you need to take accountability for a mistake, you should

  • Apologize quickly and without excuses or weasel words, and
  • Clean up the mess you made.

In this case, Sean Spicer apologized directly, without much in the way of weasel words, though he perhaps tried to explain himself too much. He is trying to clean up the mess he made, and we should allow him to do so.

By contrast, United Airlines made excuses, used weasel words, and shifted the blame in its initial attempt to apologize. It will probably take them a long time to clean up the mess they made.

When have you had to apologize? How well do you think you handled it?

 

 

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Manage Yourself Before You Can Lead Others


executive-1668932_640I’ve been following the folks at Contented Cows for many years now. Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden call themselves employee engagement experts. The name of their business comes from their first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line. Although they say they are employee engagement experts, their website states, “We develop leaders, period.” They write about employee engagement, but mostly in the context of how leaders create the kinds of focused and enthusiastic employees who give the “better milk” that all businesses want.

Recently, Bill Catlette wrote a post entitled “Leadership . . . It’s Not a Position,” which really struck home with me. I’ve read a lot about what a new leader needs to do in his or her first 100 days in the job. But in this post, Mr. Catlette goes beyond the “whats” of a new leader’s role to get at the “hows.” He says:

1. First, you manage yourself.
2. You lead others.
3. You manage the system.

If leaders reflected on these three points, I think they’d get to the “whats” of any new role a lot more easily—and to the “whats” of their existing roles also.

Manage Yourself. We have only to look at President Trump to understand the importance of managing yourself. Now, none of us can know how much President Trump manages himself, but from the outside his tweets seem undisciplined and contrary to the message of control and focus that most Americans want from their President.

As Mr. Catlette states,

“No one is going to follow you for very long or very far if you don’t have your own act together. You summon appropriate doses of optimism and humility, and keep your ego very much in check.”

This is the behavior of a leader. If this first step is not done well, then steps two and three may not get the job done.

Lead Others. Most leadership articles focus on this aspect of leadership. We are instructed that leaders should communicate the mission of the organization and how each individual’s work fits into it. They should listen with empathy to those they manage, as well as to their external stakeholders. They should encourage and persuade their followers toward a shared goal.

We’re all taught to do these things. Some of us do them better than others. But none of it matters if we—as leaders—do not model the behavior and performance needed from others in the organization.

Manage the System. Again, as leaders we are taught to examine the technology, decision rights, workflows, and other tools and processes that make up the organization we lead. We’re told to find the weak points and figure out how to improve them. We’re expected to shape the culture to get the job done—to create engaged employees.

But once more, we must recognize that we cannot shape the culture to something different than what we display ourselves.

The primary reason many leaders fail is because of cultural fit. These leaders often do not fit because they do not shape their behavior to the requirements of their role. I’m not arguing for a cookie-cutter look to all senior executives in an organization. But I am suggesting that leaders be conscious of how their behavior is viewed by those they lead and that they adapt themselves to their environment before they expect others to adapt to them.

When have you observed leaders who failed because they didn’t manage themselves first?

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When Your CEO Dies


man-76202_640I’ve been interested in succession planning since my early years in Human Resources—and particularly in succession planning at the top of the house. Perhaps that’s why my novel, Playing the Game, begins with a CEO near death and the impact that has on the corporation. So I read with interest a recent article that dealt with how to cope with the death of a key executive. Of course, the most important point is to be prepared.

“What Would Happen If Your CEO Died?”, by Branigan Robertson and Sean Reis, published on February 2, 2017, on the always excellent TLNT.com, asks what HR should do to minimize the impact of the death of a key executive.

Here are the recommendations the authors make, along with my commentary:

1. Purchasing life insurance on high-ranking managerial employees

For most companies, this is a matter of balancing cost against risk. In my opinion, insurance will only make sense for some companies—typically larger companies, or those in which an executive’s passing could end the organization’s existence. For other companies, particularly where a successor is in place, insurance may not be necessary.

2. Knowing who is next in command for each critical position, including the CEO, to fill immediate leadership gaps

This is critical. Everyone should have a back-up, just as stage actors have stand-ins. In some cases, this will be a deputy or assistant to the executive. In other cases, power will devolve up the corporate ladder, and the deceased executive’s boss may need to act in an emergency. In still other situations, a former executive might be called back into the role. And in the case of the CEO, a Board of Directors member may need to fill in, if there is no executive the Board trusts.

The important point is that stakeholders need to know immediately who acts in place of the deceased (or incapacitated or otherwise unavailable) executive.

3. Having access to all critical information

Arranging for ongoing access to critical information is part of any good crisis management plan—and the loss of a key executive is certainly a crisis. Part of the issue is making sure someone has access to corporate information, such as server passwords, financial records, tax returns and payments, bank account and payroll information, debt instruments, shareholder and Board member information, key contracts and insurance policies, critical vendor and consultant contact information—the list goes on.

And each business will also have critical systems of its own, and all of these need a crisis management plan. What systems in your organization have only one key person with access to the data?

In addition to critical corporate information and documents, it is important to know how to access contact information for employees’ family members—at least one next-of-kin or emergency contact for every employee.

4. Dealing with emotions

The loss of a key employee will impact the morale of the entire organization—the more respected and liked the individual, the more the rest of the employees will grieve. And the more critical the person was to the organization, the more employees will worry about their future.

Other leaders need to recognize, validate, and overcome employees’ sense of loss—often when these leaders knew the deceased the best and are most devastated by the death. It is probably a good idea to bring in grief counselors (usually from the company’s Employee Assistance Program, if one is in place), to help the organization mourn the loss and move on.

5. Having a succession plan in place to speed filling the position on a long-term basis

Beyond the immediate need to deal with the crisis and keep the business running, it is important to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is if the position is filled or the duties of the deceased executive are otherwise distributed. The more planning done in advance, the easier this will be.

Is your organization prepared to lose a top executive?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Playing the Game, Workplace