Leadership in “Tough Times”

You can find examples of leadership anywhere if you look. I found one in (almost) my backyard!

We live on a barrier island within walking distance of a lovely waterfront restaurant. Over the five years we have lived here, we have watched the complete devastation of the restaurant after Hurricane Matthew, the commitment to come back bigger and better, how they used the lessons they learned with Matthew to cope with Hurricane Irma, and now, COVID-19.

As an onlooker and customer, I have been impressed with their resilience, their communication to their customers and their resolve to come back strong every time. They have emerged as one of the top waterfront restaurants in north Florida.  Each time they come back they add little more pizzazz….a wine selection that rivals anything I’ve seen, seating where 90% (my personal estimate) of the diners can easily see the sun set over the Intracoastal Waterway, and a new welcome dock for diners arriving by boat.

They closed on March 17 because of COVID-19 and let their Facebook followers know in a heartfelt message about the difficulty of the decision.  Three days later they opened for take-out.  Someone on Facebook asked if they’d deliver to boats – the next day, their website announced boat delivery.

Since March 20 they’ve upped their game yet again, offering family-style meals and daily specials.  They prepared us a lovely dinner last night.  However I’m not intending to write about food, but rather about leadership.

When we opened our take-out bag, there was a hand-written letter folded inside the bag.  It read:

 

While their history and this letter showcase myriad excellent leadership principles, I’d like to focus on two – authenticity and vulnerability. In my experience, these are so powerful yet often leaders are hesitant to invoke that power.

Being authentic

In my experience, leaders often stumble when delivering bad news. It’s difficult and uncomfortable and we’re taught as children, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything.”

The problem with avoiding addressing bad news is that others can’t help but see the bad situation in front of them. Without leaders addressing it, others are left to wonder if the leader even sees it. That damages trust. If a leader can’t (or won’t) see it, she cannot be helpful at a time when help is needed.

The de Raads’ letter was authentic. They shared their challenges, goals and their commitment to their employees.  To me that says they saw what was coming with the pandemic, set their priorities, and established a goal.  And they shared this with their customers so that their customers could recognize how valuable it was to simply purchase a take-out meal.

Being authentic doesn’t mean saying the sky is falling. It is more about letting others know you see it and you are doing something. That builds trust.

Being vulnerable

Showing vulnerability is difficult for some. Those in leadership positions want to be competent, and vulnerability may appear to conflict with competence. It doesn’t.

Allowing oneself to show vulnerability means starting down a path of learning and growth. In a past article I told the story of a leader who thought being vulnerable meant allowing himself to cry in front of his team.  Instead it made the team terribly uncomfortable and they lost confidence in his ability to be strong.

As a customer, I love seeing that my input to the restaurant is valued, but it takes vulnerability to ask for it.  The de Raads put themselves out there sharing how they were in a learning curve on a whole new business model.  I suspect it’s energizing for the employees to know that they’re a valued part of developing this new business model.

Vulnerability is not weakness it is strength.  It says that I know where my strengths are, what my weaknesses may be and that I am wise enough to know that there are blind spots I need help seeing. Vulnerability means that I acknowledge I may not know, but I want to learn.

Being vulnerable enables others to “know” and teach; to add value.

Don’t underestimate others

The lack of authenticity and vulnerability in leaders may mean they want to “know” and be right or it may mean they don’t have confidence in others.

Underestimating others, whether customers or employees, doesn’t make a leader look strong. A leader who thinks he can sugar coat a message is doing a real disservice to others and to herself. She is underestimating those listening and making herself look ignorant.

In times of crisis, we need leadership strength. We need leaders who can and will deliver the blunt facts, while plotting the course for learning how to be better.

I love leadership lessons from everyday life.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s dinnertime at Caps on the Water! Thank you Vivian and Bernard for letting me share your letter and your story!

Culture is more than words

It has been a while since I’ve been moved to write and share my thoughts.  Today, Kickstarter got my attention.  Here’re my thoughts…

When I think of Tech companies, I think of pool tables, sofas, cool and edgy interior, trendy snack bars…but perhaps my thinking is dated.

Kickstarter just announced that their company voted to unionize 46-37. While collective bargaining has been around a long time, healthcare, education, manufacturing, communications and service industries seem to get the most activity. Not Tech.

Apparently, there is a storm brewing that should get the attention of any organization that doesn’t focus on their organizational culture, regardless of industry.  Those who probably never gave a thought to what could happen when employees are disgruntled may need a wake-up call.

Google started an anti-union campaign last fall, diversity has become a concern in the hallowed halls of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, and it seems that the “fun stuff” – the creative and innovative work of technology has been challenged as Tech companies become more embroiled in investor relations, politics and government influence.

That a Tech company has become unionized is a big deal, a reminder that employees who feel taken advantage of do have a way to be heard.  Maybe it’s time to revisit the importance of culture.

Values

When employees’ values conflict with the organization’s values there is a culture clash. Sometimes it really is a clash; other times it might be a misunderstanding.

What can an organization do?  First, state the organizations values clearly and succinctly.  Then, make organizational decisions within the context of those values.

Communication

Employees are smart. When leadership communicates, employees may hear the words.  But you can bet they will watch the actions.  Take values for instance.

When an organization says they value innovation but establishes rigid procedures and limits resources, the employees see reality – rigidity and limited resources.  They start to compare what they hear with what they see and recognize the disconnect. The bigger the disconnect, the more intense the cynicism.

Authenticity

Organizations have the right to be themselves.  They also have the responsibility to communicate who they are authentically and believably.

Telling employees there is no problem when it’s obvious there is, is silly. Today’s media picks up problems in a nanosecond, and employees are tuned in. Addressing the problem and the actions to resolve the problem (and then following through) lead to trust. If trust is a value, authenticity is the way there.

How do you know?

If you must ask that question, you have a problem.  Organizations that ask their employees and act on that information know when their values are clear and communicated authentically.  I don’t mean doing an annual survey then putting the results in the drawer.

I mean have regular conversations, asking questions and listening to the answer.  When leadership doesn’t spend time on the front lines, they have no clue what is really happening. While employees are doing their work is the time to ask how things are going.  You don’t see the real work with only a Town Hall meeting once a month.

Today’s environment is growing hostile. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, political polarity and anger are a breeding ground for discontent. Perhaps those who are disgruntled will read about the unionization of Kickstarter with interest.

 

 

 

Turn HR’s Value Proposition Upside Down

The Question:  How does HR sell our services to our internal clients?

The Answer:  We don’t.

For a couple decades now, we have been told that HR needs to become more business oriented, focusing on aligning HR practices to the needs of the business and the work of HR to the bottom line.

We know this because research has shown that key HR processes – training, talent management, incentives – all have been well documented to help the business perform better.

Unfortunately, research can only be generalized to a larger sample if the variables are identical and there is nothing about an organization that is identical, from the people, to the culture, to the processes, to the leaders.

Researchers like Jac Fitz-Enz, who pioneered measurement in the HR profession and Gallup, who first tied engagement to business performance, have given helpful tools to HR to “talk” the language of business with their operational counterparts.  And that’s a good thing, because, as an operational leader once told me, “Businesspeople don’t want to hear about the fluffy stuff.”

So, after a couple decades of trying to sell our services, how has that been working for us?  From my research and experience, it’s not working very well.  While some businesspeople have embraced the idea doing what’s necessary to improve engagement and develop talent, many operational leaders just don’t “buy into” the direction in which HR is trying to lead them.  What we end up with is engagement through compliance rather than commitment.

I have come to believe we are looking at this all wrong.  The assumption we have been going by is that HR needs to become more business savvy, Once they do, as this line of logic goes, they will then be able to influence the operational leaders to do a really good job with things like performance management and employee relations simply because the operational leader is clear that their actions benefits their department’s performance, right?

That’s a pretty bold assumption and I think it is wrong.  It assumes that operational leaders a.) know how to do these things well and b.) want to.  It has been my experience that few operational leaders really get what they need to do to truly drive engagement and develop talent.  And if they do, they have thousands of other tasks getting in their way.

Let’s turn our assumption upside down

Instead of preaching HR’s impact on business results, let’s preach leadership behavior’s impact on employee commitment.

First, we must debunk a myth.  HR’s role isn’t to make business or employee decisions. Period. Those decisions are the responsibility of leaders. HR can provide data, advice and coaching but ultimately, the decision must be leaders’, otherwise they cannot behave authentically with their employees.  When the answer is “HR said,” the leader looks powerless – not a good look for anyone trying to generate trust.

Leaders are the linchpin to employee commitment. Rather than focusing on how well HR programs can drive business success, let’s acknowledge that leadership is “fluffy” and help leaders be more comfortable with those behaviors that, in fact, do engage their people.

Leadership Behavior is a Leadership Decision, Not an HR Decision

HR programs and processes are guidelines, nothing more.  They cannot be mandates because HR does not have the authority to mandate. The very best HR can do is build a compelling case for specific behavior, build programs and processes that influence that behavior, and monitor activity.  Holding leaders accountable for those behaviors is the job of leadership and if they don’t a.) see the point, b.) know how or c.) don’t want to, then the outcome is hit or miss.

Change up the “Why”

Remind leaders about humanity, about how employees are people with strengths and vulnerabilities, with flaws and with feelings.  Let them know that their behavior directly influences how their employees feel.

It doesn’t take years of research to recognize that people perform better when they feel better.

Today’s workplace is stressed to the max.  Back in 2006, EAP provider ComPsych reported 74% of workers’ stress came from people interactions (28%) and workload (46%).  In late 2017, Korn Ferry reports that employee stress levels have risen nearly 20% in three decades.

Leaders who contribute to employees’ stress increase their own.  HR can help leaders reduce their own and their employees’ stress by changing their leadership behavior.

Take them back to their personal experience as an employee

Remind operational leaders that they were once just “an employee” and probably had the same experiences their employees now have. HR is in the perfect coaching and advisory role to remind everyone about how they would like to be treated and how much of an impact a leader’s behavior can make on employees. It might sound too fluffy, but it works.

Get leaders to “feel” the importance of treating people well.

Teach them how to build good leader/employee relationships

The growth of regulatory environment in HR has paralyzed leaders, and too often HR uses compliance rather than commitment to encourage leadership behavior. Remember the initial management training where HR introduced the “alphabet soup” of compliance (FLSA, EEO, FMLA, ADA)?  Detailing everything a leader “can’t do” instills paranoia.  Helping a leader recognize that it all boils down to fairness, consistency and authenticity generates a positive sense of how to build a good leader/employee relationship. Remind them that as employee engagement grows, the need to manage by compliance diminishes and “following the rules” simply becomes the routine of the day.

Give the decisions back

Don’t let leaders get away with an “if you say so” attitude toward their leadership responsibilities. Give them the pros and cons, and make sure they clearly understand the consequences of a “wrong” decision.  But make sure they are clear that the decision is theirs.

Don’t keep doing what isn’t working

I am not saying ignore the business impact of HR on the bottom line.  I am saying that may not be enough to influence behavior change.

By connecting leaders to their own experience and humanity and by coaching them to fully embrace their leadership responsibility by building the trust and commitment of their employees, HR is giving them the tools to lead, build trust and motivate performance.

Selling is all about making the buyers believe they want it.

 

Photo credit:Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash