Category Archives: Leadership

Dealing with Emotions as a Leader


As I’ve described in this blog, I am trained as an attorney and I am an introvert. I have always been focused on facts rather than emotions. As a result, I am not the most sensitive human being on the planet.

While this might have been a strength during most of the years I practiced law, it became a blind spot when I started managing human resources functions, particularly when I managed employee relations, which included quite a bit of employee and manager counseling.

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Image from Forbes

Early in my career, while I was still working as an attorney, I came to the realization that emotions are facts. While emotions are not tangible, they are nevertheless real. I had to incorporate the emotions of my clients, those of the parties and witnesses to lawsuits, and even the emotions of my co-counsel, opposing counsel, and the judges I encountered. If I did not successfully handle the emotional aspects of the case, I would not achieve the best result for my client.

Thus, I found myself babysitting (my word for it) witnesses in a major case, so that they were not overwrought by the time they had to testify. I listened to my clients vent when they felt they were being asked to pay too large a settlement, even when it was the rational thing to do. I maintained an even personality as much as I could with opposing counsel to diffuse their rants. I patiently explained the law to obtuse judges over and over again until they finally read the cases I had presented.

Managing my own emotions and those of others I encountered were not fun aspects of the job, but they were essential.

When I became responsible for employee relations, I realized my instincts on how employees would react to policy changes were not well-developed. If we were to communicate effectively why we needed to make these changes, I needed to find people with better instincts than I had. Fortunately, I had a man working for me who had long experience in the organization and who had excellent people skills. I learned very quickly to listen to him.

In fact, many times in my career I found it essential to let people with better skills than I had do their work. My role was to get out of their way and keep others out of their way as well.

It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them. It was about getting the job done the best way we could. And that was another fact, even when it felt emotional.

A couple weeks ago, I read an article on the ever-excellent TLNT.com, “None of Us Are Rational, So Smart Leadership Means Learning to Deal With Emotions,” by Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, dated May 7, 2018. [Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (2018)]

Mr. Hougaard and Ms. Carter say it far better than I can:

“emotions are neither good nor bad. . . . as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it — and whether we want to accept it or not — true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level.

. . .

“. . . If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: You’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. . . .

“If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip.”

Even as an analytical attorney untrained in human psychology, I understood these points intuitively. Thankfully, I was able to adjust my behavior to manage my emotions and those of people around me. Emotions are facts, and I dealt with them.

When have you had to deal with emotional situations at work that were uncomfortable for you?

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Filed under Human Resources, Law, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Workplace

Six Issues to Address Before Serving on a Non-Profit Board


sekulic-Vetta-Getty ImagesAt the start of the year, many people begin new terms as not-for-profit board members. It’s exciting to start working with an organization whose mission is close to your heart. And it can be helpful to your development of managerial and leadership skills. However, it’s critical that your expectations be aligned with those of the organization. Ideally, these expectations should be set before your term begins, but it’s never too late to clear the air.

Here are some issues to discuss before or during your orientation with the board:

1. What is the mission of the organization? How has it developed over time?

You may think you understand the non-profit’s mission because of how it presents itself to the community. Sometimes, however, the formal mission differs from what the organization actually does. Or over time, the organization has taken on activities that are only tangentially related to its mission.

For example, a hospital that has its roots in providing healthcare to the indigent might start offering wellness or fitness programs. These might be important for improving community health, but it might be that too many of the hospital’s resources are being pulled away from basic healthcare services.

It is critical that a non-profit remain relevant to its community and customers. But it’s also important that it not develop “mission creep” or move beyond what its governing documents permit. Know what the organization’s by-laws and mission statement say.

2. What measures of success does the organization use?

Part of the Board’s role is to articulate the success measures for the organization. But you should know how the non-profit has traditionally measured its performance. Is it number of people served? Donations raised? Quality of service and accolades from clients? All of these may play some role in the success of the organization, but know what the staff considers its performance measures.

Then, during board meetings, frame your questions and advice in terms of how to improve the organization’s performance toward its success measures. And, if you think something is missing, work with your fellow board members to implement new performance indicators.

3. What communications tools exist to help board members speak to the community?

As a board member, you should be an advocate for the organization in the community. Some non-profits have communications or marketing directors who are responsible for presenting the organization’s face to the community. Ask to see the marketing brochures and other tools used in these communications. Ask for talking points that the organization wants board members to make.

And if the organization faces a public relations crisis or significant internal or external changes, find out how the staff is responding, and ask whether and how they want board members to assist. You will get asked about these issues by your friends and colleagues who know you are on the board, so be sure you are prepared to help the non-profit and not hurting it.

4. What board development and/or assessment and corporate governance programs are in place?

Some organizations elect board members then let them serve for decades with little attention. These days, particularly at larger non-profits, it is important that the board have the skills necessary to advise the non-profit staff. Know how board members at your organization are assessed.

Another best practice is to have a board orientation for new board members. Ask to participate in any orientation that’s available. If no formal board orientation is in place, then ask to tour the organization’s facilities, ask for an opportunity to participate in the non-profit’s activities in a meaningful way (or at least observe them). Also ask for a knowledgeable board or staff member to review the recent financial history of the organization with you.

When an organization has three-year board terms, it is much like having someone in a corporate position for three years—the first year is mostly a learning experience, and the ability to contribute increases in the second and third years. Anything that shortens that learning curve benefits both the organization and you as a board member.

If a board member is not attending meetings, or is not contributing to the organization, then there should be a mechanism to replace them. Term limits are usually a good thing for both the organization and the board members. Help the organization to put in place term limits and/or an orientation program and board assessment program, if nothing is available.

5. What financial commitments does the organization expect of board members?

Some non-profits have a fundraising expectation of board members, and others seek only advice (though, of course, donations are always helpful). Know going into the position what the organization expects of you. And then meet or exceed those expectations.

Business Meeting

Flickr photo from thetaxhaven on Creative Commons

6. What else do you want me to know?

You were asked to be on the board for a reason. Ask what that reason was—was it your skill set or your perceived deep pockets or something else?

Also inquire about issues within the organization the staff want you to know. The Executive Director or CEO may want you to get involved in evaluating a particular department. The Chair of the Board may think there are issues with the staff. Have some one-on-one conversations with at least the head staff person and the board chair, if not before you begin your term, then soon after it begins.

You are a board member, act like one. It all boils down to knowing as much as you can about the organization and knowing what is expected of you.

What other questions would you add to this list?

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Succession Planning in Family Business (redux)


father daughterI haven’t written about succession planning in family-owned businesses in a while, but the topic continues to interest me. (It was a significant issue in the novel I wrote, Playing the Game.) When should a company founder select a family member as the next CEO and when should the founder look outside the family?

The first piece of advice is not to leave this issue until the founder is in poor health or ready to retire immediately. Any succession plan requires time to implement, and the more time the better.

If family members are interested in the business, then they should be groomed—without making any promises—to acquire the skills and experience necessary to run the company. This may require a rotation through several departments in the business, each lasting at least two to three years. It may even require the heir-apparent getting experience outside the company, either in the same industry or another industry, to broaden his or her skills. In other words, it can take most of a career to prepare the successor to become the next CEO.

It’s also important to keep your options open. Don’t just groom one successor. Find two or three, both family members and non-family members. Having options helps everyone know that the business is being cared for and that the person selected will be fit for the job.

Open communications are critical throughout the entire process. The founder, the potential successors, and other stakeholders (both inside and outside the family) should be able to say at any point, “This isn’t working,” or to outline problems that have developed.

Also, it is best if there are trusted non-family members involved in the assessment as well. An advisor such as an attorney or CPA or executive coach who works with the business regularly can provide input on the strengths and weaknesses of the potential successor that mom or dad may not see clearly.

For more information on issues to consider, see

“5 tips for smooth ownership transitions for family businesses,” by Arne Boudewyn, The Business Journals, Feb 28, 2017

“How Do You Fire a Family Member?” by Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehea, Small Business Trends, Apr 29, 2017

“Succession Planning in a Family Business,” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2017

“Is nepotism in the workplace ever appropriate?” by Stan Silverman, The Business Journals, Dec 5, 2017

For other posts I’ve written on succession planning, click here.

When have you had to deal with a difficult succession planning issue, in a family-owned business or otherwise?

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Filed under Leadership, Management

Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

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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Filed under Leadership, Management, Philosophy

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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Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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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Filed under Leadership, Management, Work/Life, Workplace