Walk Your Talk

A few weeks ago, my blog focused on leading by values and the importance of communicating your organizational values clearly and constantly. Another critical element for leaders to practice is what I call walking your talk. Leaders must make every effort to become living symbols of their organization’s value system. Walking your talk means that your company values act as a set of guidelines for decision making, problem solving, and general day-to-day business operations.

For this process to work, you need a method of identifying gaps between values and behaviors. One way is to describe what the current situation is and what you want the desired situation to be, and to document action steps for making the change. Let me share an example from our own company.

We used to have a conflict at the end of each month among our sales, accounting, and shipping departments. One day, we brought representatives from each department together to discuss the issue in a fact-finding meeting. What we learned was very interesting.

The cause of the problem was a compensation policy stating that a sale couldn’t be credited to a sales person’s goal until the product had been shipped and billed. Since every sales person received bonuses based on monthly performance, they wanted every order fulfilled by the last day of the month—even the last-minute orders. This put extreme pressure on the shipping and accounting departments. In fact, in some cases people in those departments were working twelve-hour days at month end.

When everybody put the issues and their personal perspectives on the table and began to work on solutions, it actually became quite easy to eliminate the pressure caused by this policy. The group worked together to develop a new solution for dealing with the end-of-the-month workload crunch. And our corporate values provided the framework for the team to work together when solving the issue.

It would have been easy to continue to recognize the revenue at the expense of the people. However, Relationships was a corporate value—and making some people work twelve-hour days wasn’t honoring that value. Our leaders and teams walked their talk and restructured the process to honor both regular working hours and sales goals. The solution recognized the importance of both people and results.

Ignoring this issue would have put corporate values at risk—but using the values to solve the problem fortified their importance.

Think about situations that need to be improved in your organization. Then use your values to drive conversations and do the right thing. Leading by values is a continuous journey—and it is never too late to start walking your talk.

Don’t Just Sit There, Say Something!

Managers typically react to the performance of their direct reports with one of three responses: positive, negative, or no response at all. It isn’t hard to guess which one works best for increasing good performance—the positive response.

A person who does something correctly and receives a positive response will most likely continue to perform using that desired behavior in the future. By the same token, a person who receives a negative response for doing something wrong will most likely not repeat the behavior. So, in effect, even performance that gets a negative response can improve if the manager coaches the person and encourages them to improve.

The most dangerous response a leader can offer is no response at all. Think about it. If someone performs tasks and completes projects correctly and receives no response from their manager, how do you think they will perform in the future? The good performance might continue for awhile, but eventually it will decline. Why? Because no one seems to care.

What about the person who makes mistakes but is never corrected? It seems logical that if a person is left to fail again and again with no support or direction, their performance will get even worse. It is the leader’s responsibility to help everyone succeed. Ignoring bad behavior hurts not only the individual, but also their manager and the organization as a whole. It’s just bad business.

Even though leaders are busier than ever these days, most still notice when their people are doing great or when they need coaching. The big mistake happens when the manager doesn’t say it out loud. I often say “Good thoughts in your head, not delivered, mean squat!”

If you want your people to achieve and maintain high performance, let them know that you notice and care about the things they do right—and that you want to help them when they are off track. Share your thoughts. No one can read your mind.

Be consistent with your communication and you will build a consistently high performing team.

Leadership is a Partnership

Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people. I have believed this statement my entire career—and it might be even more important now than it was 35 years ago. Workforces are more diverse, workplaces are less centralized, and technology continues to revolutionize how business is conducted and how people communicate. The most successful leaders are the ones who partner with their staff.

Partnership starts with clear and frequent communication. Leaders must establish a rhythm or consistent schedule of discussions with team members. I suggest that leaders meet at least once a week, for 30 minutes with each direct report. That might sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee if you spend this time you’ll create trusting relationships with your team that will improve morale and productivity in your department.

Use these meetings to work with your team member to set clear goals, to praise progress on tasks, to redirect efforts if necessary, and to celebrate the completion of each project. It is critical that the leader and team member participate equally in these meetings, speak their truths, and listen with the intent of learning something—not judging.

Some of you reading this might be saying, “This isn’t new information.” You’re right it isn’t—but it is such a simple truth of leadership that I want to remind people again and again. You’ve probably heard me say that the information I provide for leaders is just common sense. But I also say that my philosophy isn’t always commonly practiced.

My goal is to have every leader start having these important conversations with their teams. I urge you to partner with each team member to help them be successful. So, I provide this reminder for you to be a leader that makes this common sense, common practice. You’ll soon realize how a small investment of time spent partnering with your people will build a stronger, more self-reliant team.

Learning from Failure

“Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal” is one of my favorite quotes from my friend Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team and my coauthor on the book Everyone’s a Coach. This philosophy drove a great deal of Coach Shula’s behavior during his long career as the winningest head coach in NFL history.

Don had a twenty-four-hour rule. He allowed himself, his coaches, and his players a maximum of twenty-four hours after a game to wallow in that game’s outcome—to fully experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But once the twenty-four-hour deadline passed, they had to put it all behind them and focus their energies on preparing for the next game.

A colleague recently shared with me how she used this technique at work to turn a big mistake into a learning moment. One of our sales teams used an Excel spreadsheet saved on a shared drive to track revenue and bookings. The database provided an easy method to run reports by type of product sold, sales by person, and other key categories. Everyone on the team was able to access the document easily any time they needed information—that is, until the day one team member accidentally deleted the entire file! When the employee shared this news with her boss, she thought she might actually be fired.

The manager had a better idea. She calmed the employee down by asking her to start brainstorming how they might recreate the data. Together they came up with a few options: ask the IT department if the file had been backed up so they could just request a copy; check to see if anyone had copied the file onto their desktop, or recreate the file from scratch. This activity helped the employee start thinking in a positive manner instead of beating herself up. The manager did one more thing: she gave the employee permission to go ahead and lament her mistake as much as she wanted to—but only for twenty-four hours. After the required time, they would meet again to discuss next steps and to talk about what they both had learned.

What a difference a day makes. At first, the manager and employee were discouraged to find out the IT department didn’t have a backup—but then they discovered the manager had saved a copy of the file to her desktop a week earlier. So the employee needed only to update a week’s worth of data and the database was back in business.

Of course, the employee learned to be extremely careful when closing a shared file. But the biggest learnings proved to be the foundation for an ongoing trusted working relationship:

The employee learned:

  • she could be honest with her manager;
  • her manager trusted her to solve problems;
  • she and her manager worked well as a team; and
  • twenty-four hours is plenty of time to feel bad about a mistake.

The manager learned:

  • the importance of keeping her cool in the face of disaster; and
  • how to empower her employee to turn a problem into a victory.

As a result, their respect for each other grew and they went on for years, sharing successes and treating every challenge as a learning moment.

Give the twenty-four-hour rule a try. Celebrate successes but don’t get a big head—and don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t succeed. Keep things in perspective and remember: success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal.

Hello, My Name is Ken—and I’m an Egomaniac

I want to share a method for getting your ego out of the way and clear your path to becoming a servant leader. There are two sides of the human ego that can cause trouble. One is false pride—when you think more of yourself than you should. When this occurs, you spend most of your time looking for ways to promote yourself. The other is fear—when you think less of yourself than you should. In this case, you spend time constantly trying to protect yourself.

I love to start meetings with an Egos Anonymous session. It is a simple but powerful opening activity with a format similar to one used in many 12-step programs. Individuals stand up, introduce themselves, and then share an example of how they have let their ego get in the way of being their best. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m an egomaniac. The last time my ego got in the way was…” and then I might talk about when I took too long to apologize or when I was impatient with someone I care about.

When you make this kind of admission in front of others it is an act of vulnerability that enables people to see you as you truly are, which builds trust and improves relationships. Try it yourself. Reflect on a recent situation where you reacted badly or in a way that was inconsistent with the person you want to be. If you are like most people, you’ll realize that your ego-driven episode was a result of either false pride or fear. You may have felt a need to win at the expense of others, or to be seen as smart, or to be accepted as part of a group. Both false pride and fear are damaging and can limit your effectiveness as a leader. The first step to changing your behavior is to identify the issue. Only when you realize you are operating out of false pride or fear will you be able to change.

To keep your ego in check, I recommend that you ask yourself a couple of questions. First, ask “Am I here to serve or to be served?”  If you believe leadership is all about you—where you want to go and what you want to attain—your ego is probably causing problems in leadership situations. But if your leadership revolves around meeting the needs of the organization and the people working for it, you are acting as a servant leader.

Next, ask “What am I doing on a daily basis to recalibrate who I want to be as a leader?” This could include how you enter your day, what you read, what you study—everything that contributes positively to who you are. Consider your daily habits and their impact on your life. Take time to explore who you are, who you want to be, and what steps you can take on a daily basis to get closer to becoming your best self.

Let’s face it; at times we all have poor reactions to situations. We need to continually monitor our behaviors so that we can make improvements. Your leadership journey begins on the inside—but ultimately, it will have a tremendous impact on the people around you.

Start now: “Hello, my name is…”