Good Leaders Communicate

I am amazed at how often leaders fail to communicate with their constituents, whether those constituents be volunteers or employees or customers. This is particularly astounding because communication in today’s world is so easy. And good communication definitely distinguishes good leaders from poor leaders.

Here, I’m speaking of flow of information … keeping everybody on the same page. Depending on the type of information and the type of organization, a variety of options exist, including social media, e-mail, regular mail, and even the old fashioned telephone call.

I’m reminded of the story of the couple celebrating their golden anniversary. After the party, the wife confessed a disappointment to her husband: “You don’t tell me you love me anymore.” Without missing a beat, the husband replied very dryly, “At our wedding, I told you I love you. When things change, I’ll let you know.”

Some leaders mistakenly follow that husband’s model. But beware: The old adage, “No news is good news,” is not usually the case in today’s world. People – clients, employees, volunteers, team members, etc. – want to know what is going on. And when they find themselves “outside the loop,” damage occurs. Sometimes trust is broken. Sometimes feelings are hurt. Every time, confidence is eroded.

I once was asked by a non-profit organization to  teach a portion of a leadership training program that was scheduled to occur semi-annually, but not on specific (i.e., predetermined) dates. I taught the first time, received good reviews, and waited for the calendar to advance. Time passed, and when the second session of the year came around, I was not informed of the start date of the program nor of the date of my portion of the training. When I happened to hear about the training program being in-progress,  I wondered why I had not been informed of the program’s start date, nor the timing of my portion.

Since he had recruited me to teach in the program, I asked the senior leader of the organization if I was teaching in the current program offering. He said he would have to check with the person directly in charge of the program (i.e., the junior leader) to find out. When the senior leader got back with me, he said that certain changes to the curriculum had been made and the portion I had taught had been eliminated from the program.

I understand that curriculum can be reevaluated and edited from time to time, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the person teaching the deleted material did a bad job. Change doesn’t always mean criticism or failure. But lack of communication in such situations certainly communicates criticism. Worse, it breaks trust. What do you think it did to my trust and confidence in these particular leaders when they failed to communicate to me that I was no longer teaching and why my participation changed? What do you think this failure to communicate did to my motivation to volunteer (time, energy, recruiting, and finances) with this organization?

On the for profit side of the coin, have you ever seen a successful company like Apple roll out a new product without letting their potential buyers know about it. Can you imagine the next iPhone rolling out without a media blitz? Can you imagine the next iPhone rolling out without the chairman of the iPhone division knowing about it? “Not possible,” you say?

I’ve heard from employees of other companies whose bosses told customers about a new product that the department leader didn’t know anything about. In fact the department leader found out about the new product when customers began to inquire with him about the product. His answer to the customer, “I don’t know anything about that,” not only gave a bad impression to the potential customer, it humiliated the employee and eroded his trust and confidence in his leader(s). That’s. Not. Good.

Leaders, please do yourself a favor: Keep your people informed. Alternatively, pull the rug out from under yourself as a leader.

 

 

 

Good Leaders Celebrate

Leaders who are interested in building a T.E.A.M. spirit, a true “we’re all in this together” spirit, celebrate victories and milestones. And here, I don’t mean their own victories and milestones; I mean the victories and milestones of their team members.

I’ve seen too many situations in which only the leader’s accomplishments are acknowledged and celebrated. That’s a poisonous atmosphere in terms of creating T.E.A.M. Often he/she will offer the humble, “I’m surprised that people noticed,” or “How did you know it’s my birthday?” type of response over the cake and congratulatory cards. But, over time it becomes apparent that only his/her birthday is recognized and celebrated in the office. Only the boss’s life milestones (e.g., birth of child/grandchild, new certification, article published, graduation or marriage of child/grandchild, new house, etc.) are publicized from the main office.

Team builders realize that the executives aren’t the only ones that have work and life milestones or accomplishments. Good leaders acknowledge the victories that are related to the job. Great leaders – T.E.A.M. builders – celebrate the non-work related milestones of their team members.

In this regard, being a great leader requires at least two things:

First, the ability to look beyond oneself. Perhaps that seems self-evident. However, not all people in leadership earned the title LEADER by building a coalescent team. In other words, they haven’t attracted people who happily follow. They are leaders by contract: “I’m the boss and you will follow my lead.” This is a toxic environment. Great leaders, look beyond themselves, see the team as larger than themselves, and recognize the members of the team.

Second, a great leader knows his/her charges well enough to know when they have life events, and acknowledge and celebrate those events. A card, a personal email, a company e-blast are easy, inexpensive ways a leader can celebrate with his/her team members. For larger milestones, a cake or small gathering of co-workers is appropriate.

I already hear the objections:

“Our company is too big. I can’t know all that kind of stuff about all the people who work here!” Okay, start by celebrating the victories of those directly under your charge, and expect them to do the same … until every last person on the flow chart is included and recognized. Make this part of the company or ministry or club DNA.

“I don’t have budget or time for this kind of stuff.” How much money or time does it take to send an email or dial an office extension and say, “Happy Birthday!”? A word of warning is particularly relevant here: Don’t simply go through the motions by doing something impersonal. You know, the faux-personal note. People know, or will soon know when the note isn’t genuine. Auto-pilot is a mistake.

I’ve seen instances where the leader had a stack of computer generated post cards and simply scribbled his/her name below a message of “encouragement” (probably prepared by someone else). The first time the person received that type of note, he/she was encouraged. The second time, thoughts of “wait a minute, this looks automated” started to creep in. The third time, the person was convinced the cards were robot-generated and all the previous good will was lost. After that, the cards went directly from the mailbox to the recycle bin.

I want to encourage leaders – in any context – to begin celebrating their team members’ accomplishments and milestones and see how much morale and T.E.A.M. spirit and unity improve. This will result in increased productivity.

Leadership and Competency

Good leaders enhance T.E.A.M. spirit by surrounding themselves with competent people. This is not to say that every member of the team is a “number one draft pick.” Rather, it is to say that leaders recruit people who have skills and a proven track record.

Competent people are encouraged and energized in the presence of other competent people. And this energy is transferred into the work environment and typically enhances output. An additional bonus is that competent people are more easily encouraged to volunteer for or hire into an organization that emphasizes competence and excellence. Notice that this principle is true for both non-profit and for-profit situations.

People who are competent in their field lose confidence in a leader, and thus the team spirit diminishes when incompetent people are regularly hired or recruited. And this is  particularly true when incompetent people are brought in (or promoted) as a favor to friends or cronies. In other words, nepotism will destroy team morale.

A clarifying word is in order here. I am not suggesting that no one should be given a chance to learn, therefore, beginners need not apply! However, the chance to learn starts not at the top, or even mid-level. It starts at the bottom, and for reasons of prospect not favoritism. As the prospect increases in knowledge, skill, and expertise, he/she should rise in responsibility and seniority.

When beginners are brought in this way and work their way up, veterans respect them and the leadership. This results in increased T.E.A.M. spirit.

Everybody’s Watching You

Leaders, everybody is watching you. Here, I don’t mean the “Life in a Fishbowl” that many leaders dislike. Rather, I mean those you lead are getting their cues from you.

If I, as a professor, am not excited about the material I teach, why in the world should my students be excited? If a leader begins to “mail it in,” guess what his/her staff will begin to do? Even those who started out quite motivated, will over time, likely lose their enthusiasm (or commitment) when they see their leader show signs of losing interest in the organization. Leaders, beware lest you lead your organization down because you’ve lost heart for the battle.

And, because your organization is prospering, doesn’t mean you can’t lose interest or begin mailing it in. Although this issue is more prevalent and obvious when an organization is in crisis, a leader can lose interest even when an organization is enjoying prosperity. Because leaders are people, they, like everyone else, are subject to changes in life circumstances that may cause their interest in, or level of commitment to an organization to wane.

With this in mind, one of the things leaders regularly need to do is to evaluate their commitment to the organization and how they demonstrate such. Remember, people are watching.

 

The Elephant in the Room

I am often asked questions about leadership and leading others. These questions come from students, colleagues, and leaders who are seeking to evaluate their organizations. As an outsider it’s often easier to evaluate a person’s leadership in a given situation because there is no need to clear away the fog that comes with being entrenched in a situation or the inner workings of an organization. Certainly, the details of a situation are rarely understood from afar, which makes it challenging to evaluate specific decisions a leader has made. However, when evaluating leadership, the specific decisions are often less critical than how a leader leads his/her troops through a situation, whether that situation be good or bad.

This series will focus on some of the mechanics of leadership.

The Elephant in the Room

An example of a poor leadership practice that I see more regularly in both small and large organizations is a failure to address the “elephant in the room.” Usually, this is not a simple oversight. Rather, it is an effort to control a negative situation, which usually makes the problem worse. Why leaders don’t recognize the negative effects of ignoring the elephant in the room is beyond me.

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, examples of this poor strategy are abundant and obvious for everyone to see. Except, perhaps, the executive who is attempting damage control. The results of not addressing a problem that virtually everyone is aware of are often many and usually negative.

Perhaps the most negative outcome is a loss of trust by those who are charged (by contract or choice) to follow the executive’s leadership. Once trust in leadership is lost, the downward spiral begins. A lack of trust in the leader usually results in a decreased commitment by those being led poorly. That is followed by decreasing job performance, regardless of whether the people are employees or volunteers. Poor job performance is followed by poor production/output, which will eventually lead to the stagnation or even death of the organization. This is true in sports. In business. In church life.

When everyone is aware of a major problem, address it … even if all you can say is “we are aware of the problem and this is what we are doing to address it.” The problem can be anything that raises serious concerns among a company’s or organization’s constituents. When an automobile has recurring problems that are causing customer deaths, the worst thing the CEO can do is ignore the problem as if it doesn’t exist. Are you listening, Toyota? When storms hit an area and leave people homeless, citizens want to know that the governor/mayor has his eye on the problem. Even if he/she doesn’t have an immediate solution to the problem. Remember Katrina and Sandy? When production or development plans fail, a CEO should first acknowledge the problem to the stakeholders and then keep them abreast of efforts to solve the problem. Remember Enron?

I found myself in such a situation while leading an organization. One member of the organization was publicly humiliating the organization through social media. Many, perhaps all members of the group were aware of this person’s actions and were waiting to see how I would respond. Clearly an executive doesn’t want to come out with guns blazing unnecessarily, so I had to properly evaluate the situation. Were the reports true? Was this individual hurting the morale of the membership and thus the organization? The answer was clearly yes. Furthermore, his actions were undermining my leadership … the longer I allowed them to go unaddressed the more my ability as a leader came into question among the membership.

Once this became clear, I had to act … and act, I did. I first addressed the situation with the individual, dismissing him from the organization. The next thing I did was speak directly and publicly to the members of the organization about the problem, clarifying why it was a problem for our organization and how I intended to remedy the problem. Finally, I laid out a plan for moving forward that shored up confidence in our organization and me as the leader of that organization. The camaraderie of the members grew and as an organization we were able to accomplish more than we had to date.

In that illustration, the problem was the behavior of an individual, which was pretty easily solved. Unfortunately, not all leadership challenges are so easily managed. Sometimes, the best plans do not succeed. On occasions, an executive is dependent on a series of things falling into place to solve a major problem, … and they don’t fall into place. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world … unless you leave people with their hands in the air, asking what’s going on because you refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. People realize that things don’t always go as planned. So when they don’t, recognize it, explain it, and give confidence that you are working on it. If you do that, your leadership reputation and skills will be enhanced. If you don’t … your leadership will be rightly questioned.

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