The Downward Spiral of Tough Love

I had lunch last week with a friend and colleague who was telling me about a leader in her organization who subscribes to the “tough love” school of leadership. That for her teams to perform she has to be brutally honest about where they are screwing up.

Come on people! It doesn’t work for parents, teachers, spouses… so why do we think that tough love is a viable approach to leadership?

Now I get this woman’s position: she is frustrated because her teams are under-performing. The rest of the organization is counting on them… they are highly visible, and the face of the organization. If I were in her shoes, I’d feel gutted too. And probably annoyed and a bit embarrassed.

So to get the best from her teams, she motivates them by telling them how much they suck. Surprisingly, there is no substantial shift in results from her team. Then what does she do? More tough love. And what does she get? More mediocre results. It’s a downward spiral into blame, judgement and de-motivation.

Einstein was on to something: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results”. This applies more than ever to leadership.

While her teams may be faltering… the common denominator in all of this is her leadership. To change a system, starts with changing self.

When I’ve worked with leaders like this before, a common worry I hear is that people don’t want to shift their style in a way that is inauthentic. But the truth around authenticity is that sometimes people are authentically as*holes – and then they wonder why team performance suffers. Authentic leadership, on the other hand, is about showing up as who you are AND being willing to work with the impact you’re having on those around you. Instead of saying “this is me, deal with it,” authentic leaders say “how can I play to my strengths and adapt my style to get the best from my people?”

Because really, results can’t happen without people. To get the most from your team, bring intention to your leadership this week. Try a few new things:

Be a Leader:

  • Start by taking 100% accountability: if your team isn’t getting the results you want, choose accountability rather than blame. What do you need to shift in your leadership to get better results from your people?
  • Facilitate success. Rather than de-motivate through tough love, try giving feedback and coaching. One of the biggest and most important roles a leader plays is helping their people succeed.
  • Listen with curiosity and care. When results are faltering, find out why. Start first with asking questions and listening rather than directing and declaring. Facilitate conversations where learning happens.

Leadership Mile-High Club

I’m sitting on the plane, coming home from a short week away with a client. The vantage point from up here is unreal – far out my window I can see the tips of the Rockies, and immediately underneath us the brown earth slides by. Besides the fact that I am continually amazed (and a tiny bit anxious) that I’m flying in a metal tube thousands of feet above the ground, I am in awe of the perspective I get from this height. And the perspective comes not only the vastness of my view, but the fact that I get a brief time-out-of-time from our plugged-in world.

While it is a bit of circumstance that is forcing me to take best advantage of my time in the sky, this ‘white space’ is useful (probably even more so) when I’m in the chaos of my life on the ground.

As a leader, it’s a art and a skill to be able to step above the day-to-day, to be able to both observe and assess what you see happening in your interactions, your team, your company and your career. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky say: “To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those ‘on-the-ground’ events.” This distance and perspective leads to informed action, rather than unconscious reaction.

And you don’t have to be in plane to put these leadership practices in place:

Balcony View: This in-moment perspective requires the ability to observe your interactions, the impact you’re having, and the quality of conversation. Leadership is an everyday practice, and not distinct from strategic business conversations. How you show up in the immediate is what makes up your leadership essence. To have the impact you want means being able to both observe and act simultaneously.

Make it a habit:

  • At the end of every meeting, check in with yourself: did I show up the way I wanted to? What was my leadership impact? How do I know?
  • Check in with the team: how would everyone rate the quality of the conversation? Did we defend and declare or pause and inquire? What worked and didn’t work with how we engaged with each other?

Strategic white space: Ever noticed how one minute your calendar is blissfully empty and the next it’s completely full of meetings, phone calls, operational deadlines? If you’re not intentional about giving yourself some white space – that time away from the day-to-day where you can have a longer-term perspective – your day-to-day time just fills up.

Make it a habit:

  • Book time at least once a quarter to step away from your day-to-day to look more strategically at your leadership and your business. Ask yourself: Am I leading my team in a way that gets the best out of them? What challenges and opportunities do I see on the horizon? What’s it going to take from me and my team to overcome these challenges and seize the opportunities?
  • Check in with your customers: What trends am I seeing in customer expectations? How can we best meet customer needs? How can we stay two-steps ahead of what our customers want?

Periods of complete disengagement:  Self-care is one of the most overlooked leadership advantages. When you are at your best, your team is too… And the reality is as much as you try to convince yourself otherwise, working endless hours, day-in and day-out is not conducive to your best self.

Make it a habit:

  • Take vacations. Even though it can seem pointless – working crazy hours to get ready to leave, and crazy hours to catch up when you’re back – the complete disconnection from work is what allows you to come back with refreshed energy, perspective and mental focus.
  • Turn your e-mail off every once in a while. Companies managed to survive (and even thrive!) before the days of the digital… a few hours of inaccessibility isn’t going to end the world.
  • Spend time doing things you love… and if you looooove work, spend time doing OTHER things you love. Time with family, laughs with friends, adventures in the woods… do things that feed your soul. Then your soul has more to give.

As I start the slow decent into Vancouver, I’m thankful for this reflective time I’ve given myself. Come join me in this leadership mile-high club, take some time-out-of-time to reflect and think – and let me know if it makes a difference for you.

Leadership and the Art of Car Racing

Last week I had some amazing conversations with leaders who have realized that to keep on top of their game… to have the impact that they want… they need to consistently hold the mirror up to their leadership. They know that leadership is a process, not a destination, and one that requires constant awareness, reflection, insight and change.

Now let’s be honest. Leaders often get to where they’re at because of a ruthless drive they have inside of them… a striving for excellence and success. And yet sometimes (okay, often!) this race to the top is often done with the elbows out and blinders on. The danger comes when leaders think that they’ve reached the top of their game because of this spirited, success-at-all-cost mentality, rather than realizing that success has likely come in spite of it.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” he states that the higher a leader gets in the organization, the more their problems are behavioral. In other words, the distinguishing factor of leaders at the top is that they bring awareness to their own behavioral liabilities, AND they make a commitment to getting better. Goldsmith says, “as we advance in our careers, behavioral changes are often the only significant changes we can make.” So, all other things being equal, the lesser leader is unwilling to address their own inter- and intra-personal challenges, often with a mindset that they’ve already arrived at their leadership destination.

I’m not saying to diminish or erase that deep internal drive that many leaders have – in fact, I find that quality of leadership admirable and powerful. I am saying that to have more of an impact, to be more of a leader, we need to have greater awareness about the impact we’re having – not only on results but also on the people around us. Results happen through people.

I once told a client that it’s a bit like the difference between racing a drag race and being in a Formula 1 race. In a drag race, you have a straight stretch of road, the focal point of a finish line being right in front of you. It’s foot down and haul ass to the finish. In Formula 1 racing, you are on a twisting and turning track with a bunch of other cars. Sometimes you need the gas; sometimes you need to strategically brake. You are always attuned to where the other drivers are around you, and you rely on your pit crew to keep you and your car at the top of your game. (**Disclaimer: not being a car racer myself, this is my own, perhaps naïve, interpretation! Forgive me Michael Schumacher.)

So to up your skills as a leader, take the blinders off. It might be bright and overwhelming at first, but with the right mindset it can be full of learning and reward.

Here are some things to try this week:

  • Ask for feedback from a peer, a direct report, and a boss. Don’t settle for generalities – ask for details and specifics… stay curious.
  • Set your own leadership goals. What is the impact you want to have in your time as a leader? What’s your aspiration?
  • Have your antenna up. Look for evidence (even subtle signals) that you are having the impact you want. Adjust and make change if not.
  • Find a thinking partner – a coach, an impartial friend… someone who can hold the mirror up for you and tell you the truth about your impact — good, bad and ugly.

Next week, we’ll dive into the common behavioral pitfalls that trap leaders. In the meantime – let’s hear from you: what’s the biggest behavioral change you’ve made as a leader, and what impact did it have?

The Spider Moves Where the Spider Needs to Go

As a leader, have you ever felt like time stops when you’re not around? That your team can’t make a decision without you? That you’re mediating petty conflicts between team members more often than you’d like? For whatever reason, despite your “A” team you’re getting C/C+ results at best?

Then it’s time to pause and look at how you’re operating. Even though we resent it, there is something seductive and seemingly powerful about being the glue that holds the team together.

But the reality is, this hub and spoke model of leadership is getting old. And yet I still see many leaders operating this way – spending the bulk of their time in one-on-ones, trying to get the best from the individuals on their team, yet not realizing that this approach comes with downfalls when it comes to team performance.

With each person being lead individually, the focus on collective team effectiveness and accountability wanes. Not only does this model contribute to exhaustion on behalf of the leader, it also contributes to an erosion of trust between and among team members. Though you may be leading high performers, you likely aren’t leading a high performance team.

Katzenbach and Smith, in The Wisdom of Teams, talk about the individual vs. team focus: “Deeply engrained biases towards individual accountability and achievement reinforce the executive behavior patterns that run counter to team requirements. Teams at the top, like teams elsewhere, must develop a sense of mutual trust and interdependence.”

In extreme cases, that lack of mutual trust and interdependence can be devastating. Individual executives are reluctant to rely on anyone other than themselves for results. A subtle drive for individual high performance, often supported by one-on-one leadership from “the boss,” can turn to full-blown competition and cutthroat behavior amongst colleagues. Competition without a solid foundation of trust easily breeds contempt and can break a team. Not to mention the example that being set for the rest of the organization…

The good news is a new model has been emerging where the leader is less at the center, but moves freely to where he or she is needed, with the leadership focus shifting from the individual to the individual as team-member. Roll away hub and spoke… Enter “The Web” — a delicate weaving of relationships, results and shared accountability.

This leader is nimble in his approach – going where he is needed most: coaching, setting strategy, facilitating healthy debate, encouraging team dialogue, front-and-center with the customer. You get the picture.  While also seemingly pulled in multiple directions, this leader is intentional in where he spends his time — he knows when and where to get involved, in best service of the organization and the people. He develops the individuals and cultivates the team.

The other day I was talking to the head of an organization about Hub and Spoke vs. Web Leadership… He paused for a moment and offered this nugget of arachnid goodness: “the spider moves where the spider needs to go.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

e-musings leadership tips:

  • Lead individuals AND the team. Focus on the inter-dependencies and relationships between and among team members.
  • Get out of the way. Enable your team to achieve success. Coach when needed, give feedback often, celebrate milestones and facilitate learning from mistakes.
  • Hold your team capable of solving problems, jump in only when absolutely necessary (this builds trust, increases capacity for problem solving, and gives you more brain space for strategic thought)
  • Be nimble. Lead others the way they need to be lead. Flex your style to get the most from your people, but be consistent in your expectations of the team.
  • Hold the team accountable for shared success.
  • Remember, it’s not what you expect, but what you inspect that counts. Set team incentives as well as individual incentives.

What tips do you have for cultivating team performance?