Four Fundamentals of Leadership, Perfectly Demonstrated

According to leading business research firm McKinsey, organizations spend $14 billion annually on leadership development. In this 2014 article titled “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail,” they go on to provide four reasons why such programs don’t work, including lack of context and measuring results, lack of connection to real work and underestimating mindsets of the learners.

That is a whole bunch of money to waste, when leadership fundamentals are really pretty simple.

I recently joined a community chorus. (Hang on, I’ll get to the leadership fundamentals but I have to set the context first.)  I live in a relatively small historic town with lots of tourists but not as many locals.  I love to sing, and when I saw the ad to join the chorus, I thought a nice, easy community chorus would work well with my otherwise busy schedule.  I was a music major.  I can sight read, so this’ll be a breeze.

Boy, was I wrong…about the easy, breezy part anyway. I walked into a room of 120 volunteer musicians and picked up nine choral scores. Most pieces changed keys 5-6 times. Several split four-part harmony into eight parts. I guess this Community Chorus has stayed active and popular for 70 years because they have something special to offer.  Okay, time to roll up the top of my piano and practice.

But here’s where the leadership fundamentals come into play. In eight weeks, the Director has taken a group of volunteers, some of whom cannot read music, and created a spectacular presentation – at least it will be in three weeks when we present the concert “I Hear America Singing.”  I know it will be great, because the Director is leaving us no choice but to excel.  And I find that an endearing motivation.

There are four things he has done that, based on my years of developing leaders, are fundamental. Let me share his methodology; it could be easily adapted in any situation.

He Established Stretch Goals

He could have selected pieces that were straightforward, harmonious and easy to sing.  Instead he selected nine very difficult pieces that are complicated, difficult to learn and challenge even the most experienced musician.

That was motivation, right there. I probably would have been okay with simple. But I was excited, energized and highly motivated to conquer something difficult.

He Recognized the Capabilities of his Musicians and Provided the Right Tools

One hundred and twenty volunteers naturally will have varying degrees of musical prowess, including the ability to sing written notes and tempo, and the knowledge of how a Director will communicate his own interpretation of the music. But with an eleven-week rehearsal time, each individual needed to learn parts quickly.

He knew that if he wanted the group to sound professional, he had to provide tools and hold us all accountable for using them, so he provided digital music tracks that emphasized each of the parts, with the other parts in the background. We could follow along with our part and be confident when joining the other parts.  Well, at least slightly confident.

He Trusted Us to Learn, and Told Us When He Was Disappointed

Even after the first few rehearsals, we sounded a whole lot better than I expected. He used that time to teach; not what we were supposed to learn ourselves, but how to work together as a chorus.

After the fourth week, some pieces were still sounding pretty funky.  He stopped us immediately, gave us feedback and a chance to practice a few times.

In the eighth week, one piece sounded pretty lame, and I love how he delivered his feedback.  He said, “That was terrible.”  He went on to say, “You heard it too, right.  Tell me you know that was terrible.”  As everyone chuckled, I sense there were more than me that were feeling pretty sheepish and vowed to work harder on that piece.  I have.

He Worked Harder Than Any of Us

I don’t mind the candid feedback when I respect the heck out of the provider.  It has been obvious since I walked in the door back in February that he had spent a great deal of time preparing, had obvious deep knowledge of all facets of the music and was going to make sure this was one helluva show.

I don’t want to let him down.  My music is marked carefully to make sure I stop and start at the right times because he made a comment that “you don’t want to come in too early, or you’ll make us all look bad.” It was said with a smile on his face, but…

What Does This Have To Do With Organizational Leadership?

What I just described is part of a basic management course:  set stretch goals, provide tools and resources, give regular and candid feedback and take your leadership responsibilities seriously. We all learn it, but sometimes we forget just how powerful the basics can be.  We get caught up in the minutia of the daily grind. We find ourselves overwhelmed with deadlines, and our team “can wait.” It can’t.

The single most important role of a leader is to lead. That means setting course, correcting course when necessary and being helpful and visible.  McKinsey’s article about the failure of leadership programs says to me that most programs don’t set the standard for good leadership and then train to those principles.

Helping our leaders grow and develop the mindset that they are there to produce results may be a good place to start.

What will the measure of the Community Chorus results be?   A phenomenal concert.

What phenomenal results can you motivate your team to achieve?

How to stop leaders from “gaming” your system

For two decades I designed compensation and performance management systems for large and medium companies. I always had this nagging thought that after two or three years the system had run its course. Those who wanted to do so had figured out the game and turned what was intended to be a fair system into their own playground.

Quantitative performance ratings drove me crazy. Leaders would figure out the overall rating they wanted, and then go back and tweak the individual ratings so that they could give the salary increase they wanted to give.

Today, the Wall Street Journal carried an article about how companies are learning to game Glassdoor. Companies like SpaceX, SAP, LinkedIn and Anthem “encouraged” people to leave excellent reviews, causing unusual spikes in their ratings. CEOs questioned about the practice said that the ratings on the site were not representative of their company, so they fixed it.

I see a pattern here – those systems that are intended to provide helpful and unbiased data can be “gamed.”

The other nagging thought I had back when I designed compensation plans was that plan sponsors wanted to substitute a system for daily leadership. How do we make sure the tellers are upselling? Put in an incentive plan. Are tellers balancing? Put it in the incentive plan. Are they being nice…? You’ve got the idea. The plan becomes so complicated that two staff analysts are engaged to “track and manage” it. The branch manager doesn’t understand it and spends more time explaining the plan than correcting behaviors.

I see another pattern here – there seems to be more value placed on systems to manage behavior than on leadership observation, coaching, and feedback.

Systems are critical in an organization. They lay boundaries, communicate values, encourage appropriate behavior while discouraging behavior that is contrary to the mission. They are not, however, a substitute for leadership. The timely and effective use of organizational systems should be a competency for which leaders are held accountable.

How can an organization build accountability into their systems so that the data and results are intentional and not “gamed?” Here are four ways to get started. (more…)

Are you ready for artificial intelligence in HR?

It’s coming, whether we like it or not. Look at the topics and exhibitors at any HR conference. It’s coming.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to relieve overburdened HR team from decisions that can be made more easily and more scientifically through decision science.

When you think about filling a job, you are solving an equation. On one side are the requirements of the job. On the other side are the skills, knowledge and traits of the employees who fill or may fill the job. The decision to hire is a gap analysis between the two points – demand and supply.

That’s what technology does to enable more qualified candidates for jobs; matches the need to the supply of candidates. It works in a similar manner to provide employee directed growth and learning opportunities as well.

But, before we can use AI to make strategic decisions we must ensure that the data is accurate. Bad data wastes time and may lead to poor decisions. Technology doesn’t really know the data is bad; it solves for the match you asked it to solve. Now is the time to make sure that future technology has credible, timely and accurate data so that it really can help make good decisions.

The “Job” side of the equation

Take a collective look at the information about jobs that the HR team maintains. By information, I mean the knowledge, skills and abilities that have been defined. Review job descriptions, job postings, competencies used in performance management and learning paths.

By collective look, I mean working together as an HR team to review all of the job data, produced by each team, for each purpose. Ask these questions:

-Do the job requirements match across all HR platforms? If not, should they?

-Do the job requirements actually describe the skills, knowledge and abilities specifically enough, or have the jobs been clustered and combined for simplicity so that they are too generic to really explain the job?”

-Is the data accurate? How do you know, and who is responsible for timely maintenance?

The “Employee” side of the equation

Employee and manager self service takes a huge administrative burden off HR, but places it in the hands of people who don’t understand the consequences of inaccurate and untimely data.

Now is the time to educate those who enter the data on the importance of accuracy, and to implement audit trails to catch and resolve outliers.

Employee and manager self service offers a menu of choices, allowing a data field to be completed with pre-defined data. Are those choices clear and well-defined? Job codes are a key element of matching an employee to a job; are managers too hurried to use the right code?

Termination codes are important to understand retention efforts. Do you offer so many choices that the hurried manager gives up and grabs the first code that seems to fit?

Now is also a great time to make sure that the data codes you use are current, and exactly what you need. If you put 100 codes out there just in case you might need them, that’s 99 possible errors a manager can make.

Conferences and vendors paint a rosy picture of capabilities we haven’t even thought of. Let’s be ready.