Being The Boss Means Overriding The Desire To Criticize

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. - Brendan Witcher

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. – Brendan Witcher

There is a hard truth in the world that most leaders struggle with: it is easier for us to recognize good behavior than bad behavior. For many of us, it’s because our emotions tied directly to each are completely unbalanced. When we see good behavior or experience a positive moment, our emotions flow like water from a faucet. By comparison, when we witness bad behavior or experience a negative moment, it’s like the Mississippi River is trying force it’s way through our brains and come shooting out of our mouths. Here is a good example that everyone can relate to:

Think of your car. Today, your car will probably get you from Point A to Point B (and maybe to C, D, E, etc) and then back to Point A again without a problem. You’ll go about your day without thinking much about your car or the modern mechanical miracle that it is. At each stop, will you thank your car? Will you feel happiness towards your car? Probably not.

But let’s say, during that important trip from Point A to point B, that your car suddenly stops working.  You’re not out of gas and there’s no logical explanation for it to break down. It just stops. Now you can’t get to Point B (or C or D or E) or even back to Point A today. Plus, you know that your entire day will be spent getting your car towed, working with a mechanic, and finding a way to get to all the “Points” in your life for who-knows-how-long. Now how do you feel about your car? Do you yell at it? Do you curse it? Do you pound on the steering wheel or kick the tire in anger? Enough said.

This is a good metaphor for how we react to most situations and, more importantly, other people in both our work and personal lives. Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that this is the natural state; to react boldly and swiftly to a negative and passively (if at all) to a positive.

Leaders work consciously to balance their reactions; to raise their level of expression in positive situations as well as suppress some level of expression in negative situations. 

Note that I did not state a complete reversal. Leaders don’t constantly play the cheerleader while ignoring that the team needs a swift kick in the pants. Here are some simple steps that can be taken towards that balance of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism:

  1. Be fully connected to what is going on: Actively look for the positive things happening around you (as well as the negative things that you might normally glaze over).
  2. Acknowledge good behavior immediately: Don’t wait for reviews or send it later in an email; do it now and do it publicly if appropriate.
  3. Pause before calling out bad behavior: Take the opposite route and plan to address bad behavior later that day and in private (note: never wait too long to address bad behavior)

Following these three steps with some consistency will get you most of the way towards this balanced leadership approach. By doing so, you’ll start to realize and recognize how far off your natural state is from this balanced state. If you find yourself having a lot of chances to praise that you wouldn’t have seen before (or pausing a lot more than you thought you would), you know you have some work to do. But stick with it, and you’ll find that mastering this skill is one of the greatest tools for elevating yourself as a leader and having success in working with others.

Key To Successfully Building Your Business Vision: Personal Beliefs

Only after you’ve looked inward to know yourself can you remove the blindfold and create a vision for your life. – Brendan Witcher

“Vision” is a mysterious thing to most people. In work, life and even in school, people are told to ‘Start with a vision.’ They are being asked to see something that does not yet exist; to imagine an outcome that will take an unknown journey along an undefined roadmap.

What’s more is that this vision must be your own. It can’t be for others to see and follow. It has to be your personal beacon in a sea of distractions and obstacles. But as a leader, you’ll often need to share that vision, have others buy into the vision, and find ways to have them help you bring that vision to life within the context of how each of them see the world and their own visions for the future.

That’s how most people see it, and why most people fail to create and follow a vision in their lives. It all seems too hard, too difficult to obtain as an ocean of effort. But there is one principle truth that makes having and sharing and accomplishing a vision both easier to realize and see to fruition:

When a vision is based on a core belief, the vision creates itself.

This is where most people put the cart before the horse. They build a vision without identifying the underlying, supporting belief that must live in their core to allow that vision to live and survive over the long run. So before you try to define your vision as a leader, here are some steps that will lead you to a vision that works for you:

  1. Figure out who you are – This may take some work, but sit down with your favorite beverage in a quiet spot without any distractions and write down all the beliefs you have; beliefs about yourself, people, the world, religion, politics, science, health, friendship, family, work, etc. Give yourself a couple of hours (this is important, so give yourself the time to do it right). Pen your thoughts in free form to let your mind flow. Write anything that enters your consciousness, big or small…both mind-blowing and mundane. Don’t edit unless you find you’re not being honest with yourself. You won’t show this to anyone, so allow yourself to be open and real with what you write.
  2. Figure out what you’re passionate about – Now that you have your list together, create a scoring system for your beliefs. What beliefs stir emotion in you? What gets you excited or makes you want to jump up and act? I, for example, believe that the greatest gift of our intellect is the power to educate. It is what drives me to learn, to study, and to offer what I learn to others freely. It is what gets me out of bed each morning and the yardstick by which I measure my success. I also have a belief that pizza is the greatest food in the world. Does that belief get me excited about expressing my inner self through the creation and sharing of this delicious Italian pie? No, but some people do feel this way.
  3. Take what’s important and visualize living a life based on those beliefs – If you were critical in the last step about what sits at the top of your passion list, you probably ended up with 1-2 strong beliefs about yourself and different areas of life (work, family, friends, religion, politics, etc). Take that list and recreate it on a new sheet of paper or document. This step is your virtual stripping away of the things that are interesting, but not passion-driving influences in your life.   With your new list in hand, build a vision for each belief on what actions you can take to support, drive and live that belief. Envision what life looks like when you are living fully connected with these beliefs. Again, this should be somewhat free form, and again think big and small…your actions in aggregate will help define the next step.
  4. Work your visions for actions and activities into single statements – Here you are finally ready for the proverbial cart. Think of what you’ve written for each belief as a short story. What would the title of that story be? What overarching theme is your vision for that belief? What are all the activities and actions you can take to support that belief creating in the way of a world view? I’ve seen this step take hours and I’ve seen this step take days to complete. It’s not easy, but it will be something you need to do to create manageable “mantras” for living your life. Once you have them, write them down in places you can refer to them: at home, in your car, at the office, etc. Refer to them often to remind yourself where you are heading and why.

Yes, this will take some work and a lot of thought, but on the other side lies a focus and understanding that will help you achieve your goals. You may want to go through this activity from start to finish a few times in your life. You may even revise the last step a couple times as you learn and start to live your vision. But whatever you do, you can have confidence in knowing that the visions you’ve built and are living by will 1) be your own, 2) be based on something you hold true at your core, and 3) be something you can communicate and explain clearly to others…all signs that you have the right vision for your life.

Lead Like Apple: Prioritize Individual Accountability

To have a fully accountable team, you must break “getting in line” behavior with individual ownership of success. – Brendan Witcher

I’m not sure when or why this happened, but at some point, holding people fully accountable for their work became very non-politically correct. The idea of “getting on the bus” and building a culture of consensus/conformity has become the norm. I’ve been asked to write on this before, but really needed somewhere to start.

Today, while waiting in my office for a meeting to start, I picked up an old Fortune magazine and proceeded to flip through the pages. In it, I came across an article that described how Steve Jobs and Apple applied the concept of a “directly responsible individual,” referred to as the DRI, within the organization. What does that mean?

With every project, there is one specific person, the DRI, who is totally responsible for its success or failure.

Since my meeting was a 2014 budget review for open entry-level positions and internships, my thoughts segued from the article to the pile of resumes on my desk belonging to recent college grads.

It’s no secret that there is an excessive amount of emphasis team building in today’s business schools. My own experience in an MBA program was no different; most of my classes focused on team projects, where everyone received the same grade regardless of effort. I felt at that time, and still believe, that this was the opposite lesson needed for working in a real business environment, where individual efforts tend to define the decisions and outcomes of tasks, jobs or projects. Even in large companies, with 500+ employees, it’s rare that a “team” in some way gets fully rewarded or held accountable for success or failure respectively. In smaller companies, it’s almost never the case.

So, while academia seems to believe everything should be done via teamwork and collaboration (which often leads to compromise in projects), and that the tough decisions should be made via team compromises, I agree with Apple’s approach. Here are the rules I created years ago and use to manage my staff with at every company that’s employed me:

  • Make individuals – not teams – accountable
  • When people succeed, give them full credit and reward them…publicly
  • When people fail, determine what caused the failure and decide on the appropriate action(s): refrain, explain, re-train, or do not retain

If you are trying to implement a significant change, or even build a culture of innovation as part of a strategy, substituting individual ownership with consensus building teams can be disastrous. A culture of consensus (or conformity in a smaller organization) leads to legions of sycophants, merely trying to please the largest paycheck in the room. You also risk suppressing distinct and new opportunities, while crushing any chance of a significant”needle-moving” idea gaining traction.

Remember, if you try to make a unique idea acceptable to everyone, you end up with an average idea. I had a boss years ago who used to often say “Consider this outcome to be the determining factor between you having a job tomorrow or you (and your family) living under a bridge, begging for change.” Harsh, but her point was spot on. If you consider every decision you make to be that critical, the single determining element between success and failure in your career, you’re going to approach your work with a sharper eye, a more focused mind, and an uncompromising determination to make sure that you – not anyone else – deliver successful results.

So, what are the takeaways?

  1. With every significant project, use the DRI concept; name someone who lays down at night worrying that he/she is going to be a failure if this thing doesn’t become a success.
  2. Make it clear to the everyone, at every level, how the job/project is going to be run and, most importantly, who is the DRI. This needs to be said at the top and heard, first hand, by everyone who matters.
  3. Also, make sure it’s clear to everyone that the DRI has full authority and ownership over their job and delivering results, because he/she will be “the throat to choke.”

All that said, there are times when team consensus work is a better choice; in fact, there are situations where it is absolutely necessary. For example, teams must be used when you need to improve a process. Team members should represent the various skills needed to handle certain aspects of a process. Process improvement tools like Japanese Total Quality and Six Sigma brought the team concept to the American workplace; but, unfortunately, many folks still attempt to apply the team notion through every part of their business.

So recognize when to use DRI’s vs. teams, apply DRI use religiously to key areas of the business, follow through on accountability, and who knows…maybe you’ll be running the most valuable company in the world someday too.

Dedicated to Steve…your leadership and inspirational thinking is missed.

Is Your Company a Perfect “10”?

“10” is within every company’s reach!

The whole cannot be greater than the sum of its parts.

Some of us may remember this statement from elementary math, but its principle seems forgotten when it comes to organizational structure. Recently, I was dining with three C-Level executives at a well-known and expensive restaurant. The purpose of this meeting was exploratory in nature. The BOD’s P/L goals for the company had been repeatedly missed over the past 3 years and wanted something done about it. The goals had been reasonable, the marketplace had been strong and, unfortunately, the competition was doing well.

As we discussed the situation, they painted a picture of a company with barely any turnover, but also acknowledged that there was very little motivation for employees to excel. By the time dessert came, it was clear what their problem was and why business had been suffering.

At this point I reminded my clients that our waiter had missed a few basic service standards that evening. One of our meals was wrong (and not corrected), we were never asked how the food was and we sat with empty drink glasses for most of the evening. Our server was also generally rude and impatient towards us and another couple sitting nearby. I asked the three individuals sitting with me if they would give him a 10 for this service. They all agreed that a 4 was about as high as he would rate. I then asked if they felt the food was a 10. We all agreed it deserved a 10. I asked them to rate the oveall restaurant itself; decor, music, menu selection. For these aspects in total, again, they gave a 10.

I then asked, “What final score would you give this restaurant?” They all agreed that it would recieve about an 8.

“That,” I said, “is exactly where your problem lies. You want to operate as a “10” but you have too many “3s” and “4s” in your teams.”

This is not an uncommon problem. In fact, because of weak human assets, I have watched entire companies go into the red and disappear despite having solid products and great market penetration. Yet, turnover is thought of as a bad word in corporate circles. It is often interpreted to mean a company can’t retain employees and that it likely spends too much on hiring and training initiatives. This view of turnover inherently dibilitates a company’s ability to grow. When it is purposeful and strategic, turnover can be extremely beneficial. When you let go of people who are not pulling their weight, it sends a message to the rest of your staff that:

  1. Those who give 110% to the company deserve to work with people who will give as much.
  2. The company is striving for perfection.
  3. The company will reward those who take ownership of their jobs, and remove those who do not.

Here is an excellent exercise to put things into perspective. Make a list of all your employees or, if you are a large organization, list employees in just key positions. Score each one of them based on their ability to do three things:

  • Consistently meet your expectations for tasks you expect them to own (1-4 Points)
  • Regularly exceed your expectations in terms of attitude, professionalism, work ethics and commitment to excellence (1-3 Points)
  • Effectively comprehend, communicate and enforce your expectations to those who do not report directly to you (1-3 Points)

When I work with upper-managers, I don’t reveal the theme of this exercise. That being said, I’ve often seen managers beam with pride in their organizations built with average scores of 7s-8s. After we complete this part of the session, many will make comments such as “This looks pretty good” or “My teams are strong overall in these areas.”

First, let me point out that the scoring is usually on the high side. I’ve learned that most managers will give their teams/employees at least a 3 on the first point (just above average) and 2’s on the second and third point (average). In my opinion, these scores lean towards the higher end of the scale because C-Level execs know, to a certain degree, that their subordinates are a reflection of themselves as managers and leaders. If nothing else, they are a reflection on the executive’s ability to hire and motivate good talent. Scoring their subordinates below average is something few execs are willing to do in front of colleagues or their direct reports (or a “tell-it-like-I-see-it” consultant).

It should be clear how absurd it is to rate your most important company assets (your people) as average and call this result “pretty good.” Without excellence in this crucial aspect of your business, you can never obtain excellence overall. Again, the whole cannot be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

What I am saying is this: You must hire, train and retain all level 10 employees if you want a level 10 company. This is a simple concept. If you have all 7s and 8s working for you and running your business, your company will always fall short of its market potential.

How do you fill your ranks with level 10 employees? It starts with the interview process. Most organizations in this day and age have figured out that you better vet your applicants for key employment positions. I’ve even known one person who had to go through a 2-day interview marathon where they met with 16 individuals and 4 groups (she didn’t get the job, but the person who did get the position had to weather another day and 4 individual interviews for a total of 20). But it’s not the number of interviews, or the number of days, or the length of the interviews that matter. It’s what is asked, what is answered and, most importantly, what is not answered. Be sure you have a firm grasp of this person’s ability to:

  1. Do the job better than the person they are replacing.
  2. Bring some kind of strength/experience to the company/department that does not already exist.
  3. Hold themselves accountable for all of the responsibilities you will be asking them to manage.

Next, incentivize and reward employee behaviors that go beyond normal day-to-day responsibilities. Often, all it takes is a simple personal acknowledgement from someone way up the chain to motivate a person to continue outstanding performance for months on end. Think back to when you were starting your career and what it would have meant to you to have someone way up the chain acknowledge work you made great. It costs nothing, so give praise often and whenever it is deserved.

On the reverse side, do not tolerate laziness, irresponsibility or unprofessional behavior from any of your staff, but especially from those in upper-management. Leadership, or lack thereof, always trickles downward. Once bad behaviors become commonplace deep in the organization, they can be difficult, costly and even impossible to remove.

Finally, remind those that work directly for you that the people who work below them are the “parts” of their “whole.” They are responsible for hiring and developing talent below them that raises the score of their areas to “10s.” Again, to reach a 10, one cannot have a score below a 10 as part of the equation.

It’s really just a matter of simple math.

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