I have begun writing this blog post numerous times since I started blogging a couple of years ago. I was hesitant for several reasons, all of which seem so unimportant now. One of the great things about getting older is increased confidence and a very lackluster concern for what other people think of you. I recently became involved in a group referred to as “Coolest Women We Know” founded by Wendy Bohling. I am working with a couple of the members on a mentoring program and that activity inspired me to finally publish my leadership lessons – lessons I have been working on for a very long time.
Let me be clear – I have violated each of these guidelines at least once in my career. With some, the violations have been more numerous than I care to admit. But I believe that I have learned from every single failure and have grown as a manager, a leader and a person with each occurrence. I am certainly not arrogant enough to suggest that there is anything in this list that is original. Some version of each has appeared in at least one management tome and, in some cases, I am using the exact terminology you probably have heard in a “leadership seminar”. However, I have only included the precepts that are very personal and experiential to me. OK, enough with the disclaimers – here’s what I know to be true:
#1) Hire great people who are truly a match for the position and the corporate culture
Let’s start with the hiring aspect. Nothing is more important – many things may be as important, but nothing more so. It is very tempting to rush into hiring, especially when you are in dire need of the resource. Don’t do it. Interview thoroughly and reference check even more thoroughly. Don’t trust this activity to recruiters or anyone else in your organization. You can get assistance with the logistics, but make sure you are speaking personally to references and digging through your own network to get the “real story” about the candidate.
#2) Once you have hired those great people, for goodness sake, let them do their jobs
If you have hired people who are a great fit for the job and the company, then you really shouldn’t have to micro-manage. Guidance is good, clear directive is good, steering the ship is good. But if you are nit-picking every detail and wavering in your trust and confidence in their performance, then
a) You hired the wrong people – see number 1.
b) You don’t really understand your role as a manager or leader – see #3.
c) You are experiencing insecurity and/or egotism and are making your staff crazy. Consider counseling and/or career coaching.
d) The culture of your company encourages this behavior – get another job as soon as possible or buck the trend. Yes, I am being flippant, but this could be a toxic culture and you will have great difficulty being successful in your leadership role if you can’t influence this culture for the better.
#3) Balance your role in regards to strategy and tactics
This is very difficult in your early years as a leader and when you are transitioning roles. In the dark ages, when I was still a software engineer and junior manager, I would have little panic attacks when I didn’t have time to write code 75% of the day. As I progressed in my career and diversified into numerous functional roles (engineering, product management, consulting, customer care), I realized that “hands on” work will continue to evolve and your strategic contributions will become more important. There is a very nice sweet spot between understanding the nuts and bolts and rising above to abstract thought and direction. Stay in the weeds and you probably aren’t providing enough leadership. Become too distant from the “real work” and you will lose credibility.
#4) Accept that you will need to fire someone (or many “someones”) during your career
I have fired quite a few people in my career. Does that sound cold, cruel and heartless? Think again. If you have been in management (of reasonable sized teams) for more than five years and have never terminated someone, one or several of the following apply:
a) You have been very, very lucky
b) You are a master at #1
c) You work for the government – oh, I’m kidding!
d) Your and/or your organization have poor performance management policies
e) You are terrified of every having to do something so distasteful.
Based on my experience, I am going to have to suggest that d) and e) are the most common reasons for having never learned this valuable management skill – let’s just pretend I didn’t actually write c). All employees should be given clear performance AND cultural goals – we call these “Values” at NewsGator. Those goals should be reviewed regularly – I do reviews quarterly. When the employee’s performance is not up to par, take some time to coach and to reiterate the importance of meeting his or her criteria. If you can’t reach an agreement on meeting goals, you can calmly and rationally reach an agreement that employment is not going to continue. Having gone this route many time, I assure you that this is actually the most compassionate and ethical direction you can take.
#5) Be a warrior without anger
OK, I took this from a Shambhala lineage slogan, but it is one of the best pieces of business advice I have ever gotten - and the piece of advice that is most difficult for me to follow. Let’s go back to #4. I frequently see a lot of anger building up when there is an employee performance issue. You take it personally, the employee takes it personally, and the situation gets, well “personal”. It ISN’T. If you have done your job in regards to clear and consistent performance management, the decision to terminate someone shouldn’t be done with rancor. That doesn’t mean the other party won’t fantasize about your demise, but you have to have confidence in doing the right thing even when it makes others upset.
The main point here is that you have to find the careful balance between standing your ground, sticking to your convictions and doing so without a lot of emotional turmoil. This is true for all of your interactions at the workplace, but you will be particularly tested by your employees.
#6) Take all the blame, give all the credit. ‘Cause it isn’t about you
When anything goes wrong in your organization – whether it is at a small team level, a departmental level or a company level, the outcome is entirely your responsibility. It doesn’t matter if someone in your organization screwed up (see numbers 1 and 2), if someone in another organization screwed up, if the market is collapsing, or if a major natural disaster blacked out power on the entire Eastern seaboard. It is your butt on the line and you should take full blame, admit you were wrong and explain how you will fix the problem.
When anything goes right in your organization, the outcome is entirely due to the people within your organization. Give 100% credit to them. Sure, you can know in your heart that you were a major player in the success (unless the success was in spite of you) and you should take pride in that accomplishment. But always be humble in public and keep giving the credit to others. One more cliché to drive home the point? Praise profusely in public, provide constructive feedback in private.
A final word on the “it isn’t about you” point. As you mature in your career and in your life, you should need less and less external validation of your accomplishments. We all like a pat on the back and there is nothing wrong with accepting kudos in a gracious manner. But, for heavens’ sake, after a 20-30 year career, you shouldn’t crave public recognition.
#7) You are not your employees’ buddy
I have a dreadfully difficult time with this one – not because I am afraid to have people mad at me, but because I really love people. I’ve had the honor and joy of managing people whom I have grown very fond of. You should care about and be considerate of your employees and colleagues. But this can quickly get out of hand when an employee believes you to be his friend and not his manager. Attending to performance issues can become very challenging. Having intimate knowledge of personal issues can lead to conflicts of interest. Other employees feel slighted if they are not part of your “inner circle”. Be kind, be firm, be direct. But keep a healthy distance.
Let’s see if I can get through the entire day adhering to my own words.