Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Sadly, that behaviour is exhibited by many corporate leaders today. And it’s damaging them, their teams, and the companies they work for.
Leaders, it’s generally agreed, must be agents of change for their organizations. While this is important in a relatively stable economy it’s even more vital in tough financial times, as we’ve experienced over the past year.
So how may a manager be an agent of positive change — someone who can effectively guide and motivate a team in troubled times?
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In a recent interview with ITBusiness.ca, success coach Dave Anderson talked about this in some detail.
With more than 1,000 leadership presentations in 13 countries to his credit, Anderson knows quite a bit about leading in a crisis.
In the interview he focused on five powerful practices that will enable managers to steer their teams to success, while gaining the respect and admiration of all.
Anderson’s guidelines are applicable, not just to managers, but to aspiring leaders as well — as the very first tip he offers makes clear.
1. Live the role before you get the title
Behave like a leader even before you earn the “title” and the position.
It’s a leadership principle, Anderson teaches in his seminars and one he emphasizes strongly in his latest volume: How to Run Your Business by the Book.
Anderson said over the years he’s often heard this refrain from employees hoping to get promoted: “I’d like to be considered for a new management position that’s opened up. I’ve been here for a long time. I believe I’ve been loyal … and earned a shot at this role.”
At this point, he would usually ask the person what kind of preparation they had done to assume a managerial role – for instance, how many books on management they’ve read, leadership courses they’ve attended, and so on.
The customary response is a sheepish or defensive: None, I’m not a manager yet. To which he’d respond: “Wouldn’t you agree that the best time to prepare yourself for the next step up is before you’re in that position? After all I don’t want you to play a costly game of ‘amateur hour’ with our people.”
Bottom-line: learn how to manage even before you’re a manager.
But how should you set about that? Shouldn’t your company be offering you this training?
Many people complain that their firm doesn’t train them enough, Anderson told ITBusiness.ca.
His advice: invest in yourself, buy books, attend a seminar, take an online course, and upgrade your own skills.
“If people don’t invest in themselves, why should anybody else? I think people in any position owe it to themselves and their company to find ways to upgrade and improve.”
And one way to start doing that immediately, he said, is by being a solution seeker — finding answers to challenges affecting projects, your team, your company.
For a key difference between whiners and winners in any organization he said, is while both groups identify problems and areas of improvement, the latter offer and implement remedies.
2. Lead up well and you’ll move up quickly
The concept of “leading up” – though crucial to effective leadership – is understood little and practiced even less, Anderson said.
“Leading up means you add value to, positively influence, and publicly support your own leader.”
Rather than trying to erode your manager’s authority, do things that make him or her overcome their weaknesses and become more valuable.
He acknowledges this is easier to do when one’s manager is ethical and competent. But what if he or she is selfish, insecure, incompetent, or has serious character flaws?
Then it’s even more important to try and help your leader.
“Look for ways to carry your leaders load,” he said. “Identify and affirm the things they’re good at. If you have a decent relationship with them, let them know it. Tell them you’ve noticed how good they are with that particular task, and if other job responsibilities take them away from that strength let them know you’re always available to help out.”
Such loyalty, he said, should be public, where possible. “Loyalty shown publicly results in leverage privately. Don’t be the one holding the meeting after the meeting to criticize your manager, ridicule their directives, or denigrate their character.”
Anderson said experience has taught him that loyalty to one’s leader builds trust and opens up new opportunities for the employee in their current position, and can lead to management responsibilities.
3. When you mess up fess up …
To err is human, the old saw says.
And to apologize when you screw up is just the right thing to do.
“The longer you wait to admit what you did, the more suspect you’ll become and the faster your personal credibility will diminish,” warns Anderson.
Worse still is trying to shift the focus off yourself to something or someone else. If you do this habitually, you’ll have a brood of followers who are proficient at practising professional victimhood every time something goes wrong.”
On the flip side, he said the leader who makes it a practice to quickly admit their errors creates a culture that encourages others to do the same.
A Canadian expert makes the same point emphatically.
“I’ve got this saying: Mess up, Fess up, Dress up,” said Jim Stanton, founder and president of Stanton Associates, a Vancouver-based crisis communications consulting firm.
“When you make a mistake acknowledge it, and tell people what you’re doing to clean up.”
An almost textbook example of this, he said, was the exemplary way Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf foods handled the Listeria crisis.
In August 2008, the outbreak of a food-borne illness, caused by the bacterium — Listeria monocytogenes — was traced to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. The outbreak claimed four lives.
The typical reaction of most big organizations at the centre of such a catastrophe would be to clamp up, Stanton noted. “Maple Leaf Foods didn’t do the typical thing.”
Instead, he said, the firm’s approach was to:
- Tell people what happened
- Take responsibility and say they were sorry
- Acknowledge they didn’t know all the facts, but were going to find out
- Outline what they were doing to remedy the situation and regain people’s confidence
Such a strategy, he noted, may not find favour with many so-called experts, who are petrified of lawsuits that may follow any admission of culpability for a disaster.
But, according to Stanton fessing up is not only right, it’s also the smart thing to do. “The lawsuits are going to come anyway. When they do, if you’re exonerated in the court of public opinion, it will go a long way to helping you in a court of law.”
On the other hand, he said, if a cover-up is detected, chances are penalties from the law courts will be “higher, more dramatic, more draconian.”
Stanton noted that Maple Leaf Foods has settled all its lawsuits … for $26 million. “It’s done, out of the way.”
That, he said, is model to follow.
4. Clarify vision, values and performance expectations
Anderson says most leaders set a high value on building a high-accountability organization.
“Yet they also confess that they’ve done a poor job of clearly establishing what’s expected in terms of performance metrics and behavioural standards in the first place.”
So the big question in their question for accountability becomes: “accountable for what.”
While there are many functions a manager can delegate, “defining the vision and expectations” isn’t one of them, he said.
5. Give up to go up
In ‘How to Run Your Business by the Book’, Anderson has an entire chapter dedicated to effective time management, a sine qua non for effective leadership.
Time management is a valuable skill for all information workers.
However, many tech professionals have unique challenges in this area.
“We tend to experience a far greater number of interruptions through the day,” according to systems administrator and time-management coach Tom Limoncelli.
Limoncelli is author of ‘Time Management for System Administrators.’
“People come to us constantly with requests, often intruding on the projects we’re working on,” he noted. “We also face conflicting demands from different groups. Users judge us by how available we are to them, and our bosses judge us based on whether or not we get our projects done.”
Limoncelli talks about striking a balance between the two goals, and offers techniques that help systems administrators do just that.
One of them is the art of maintaining a good ‘To Do’ list.
Really it’s about perfect follow through, said Limoncelli. “You want to get to the requests from users, process them efficiently, without losing track of them.”
There are many ways of doing this, he said – using software such as RT to track user requests, using a PDA, or even paper.
In his workshops, Limoncelli also discusses strategies for planning, prioritizing and scheduling.
Anderson too emphasizes the importance of prioritizing. “And once you’ve set priorities, decide what to give up or delegate so you can complete high-priority tasks each day.”
He recalled a management training class where the instructor urged Anderson to make one-on-one coaching sessions with his team members a daily practice. He said in this way Anderson would eventually get a far better return on his time.
“I agreed with this assessment, returned to the workplace and failed to conduct a single one-on-one.”
He said there were two main reasons for his failure to follow through.
First, he failed to schedule the one-on-ones. Second, he didn’t decide what he would stop doing so as to have the time to conduct these sessions.
There’s a powerful lesson in this, Anderson noted.
Many leaders are adept at creating to-do lists. And that’s fine. “But first you must create a ‘stop doing’ list. Decide what you will give up so you can go up.”