Category Archives: Leadership. Communication

Getting Angry

I was recently asked why I was such an angry person. This question caught me off guard and surprised me greatly as I had never thought of myself as an angry person. Others may have, but not me. Before answering, I asked why it is that they thought I was so angry. They responded by saying that they thought I had become angry during the last project review we were in. I said they were incorrect, I did not get angry during the last project review. I had quickly and directly responded to what was unacceptable performance as reported in the review. I explained that I am not generally an angry person, but that I can get very direct, both with myself and with others, and will challenge unacceptable behaviors when commitments are not honored, and responsibilities are avoided.

I also said that one should not confuse the immediate and direct challenge to unacceptable performance, with anger.

I have mentioned before that my preferred method of leading is to focus on, and address the achievement aspect of performance. I tend to look at what has been done well and what has gone right, far more so than what has gone wrong or needs to be improved. But that doesn’t mean that failure to deliver on commitments, or objectives can be excused or ignored. And depending on the reasons for that failure to deliver, occasionally they must be dealt with directly.

I have found this to be the case more and more often in the matrix structured, process driven organizations of today. This is the structure where members of the “virtual” team actually report up through separate organizations, and where authority and accountability lines can have a tendency to blur. In this type of structure, it is not uncommon to find that it is felt that the process is the responsible entity for the project’s performance, and not the people that operate within it.

It is true that sometimes events occur that can make it exceedingly difficult if not impossible to honor our commitments. It happens. However, that does not remove the responsibility. Even with mitigating circumstances, the responsibility to try and deliver on agreed commitments, to the then best of an individual’s capabilities continues to exist. And most of the time I think everyone tries to operate in this manner.

However, occasionally, such as the afore mentioned project review, that was not the case.

When you are told that someone did not honor their agreed upon commitment because “they were busy”, that is an excuse, not an acceptable reason.

We are all busy.

I mentioned this this to the person who thought I was angry.

I also mentioned that I did a little further exploration during the project review before truly engaging on the failure to deliver on such a direct level. Were there unexpected issues or circumstances that arose? Were there other activities that got reprioritized, and if so why were this project’s commitments the ones that were deprioritized? In short, why did this happen?

If there had been reasonable responses to those questions, it would have resulted in the creation of a mitigation and response plan to try and recover from the missed commitment. There wasn’t. They just said they were busy.

Sometimes a direct and focused response to unacceptable performance can be perceived as anger, since it seems to occur less and less these days. The idea of individual deliverable ownership can have a tendency to fade in a large process driven project. If the process is the preferred methodology, and something is not achieved, how do you directly address the process? You don’t. You address those that are responsible for executing the process.

Anger in general has no place in the professional environment. When commitments are not honored and there are no acceptable or mitigating reasons, an immediate and direct response to that level of performance can be called for, not anger on a personal level. It is in short one of the best methods to communicate that the performance and the excuse are not acceptable.

The fact that it was so memorable by the participants in this case was because it has become such a rare approach to performance. As I said leading from an achievement focus usually provides the required drive to achieve the desired goals. The fact that the response in question was such a departure from the norm is what made it so memorable.

My litmus test for if the reason presented for missing a deliverable acceptable is very simple: Would it be acceptable to senior management?

It has been my experience that some of the best leaders are also some of the busiest people. The demands on their time and the breadth of the decision responsibilities require a continued focus on the objective and the components and deliverables that will be required to achieve them. Will telling them that you were too busy to get something done be acceptable?

The short answer to that question is “No”.

There is a fine line that should not be crossed in instances such as this. The focus needs to be on the performance, deliverable or objective, and not directly on the individual. Direct responses to performance issues cannot and should not become personal attacks.

In our now process driven, performance interdependent business world, any individual failure to deliver has a far broader affect that on just the specific individual in question. Knock-on delays and other dependent deliverables will also suffer. Everyone’s performance can and will suffer to some extent.

As we become more “PC” (which in this instance means “Process Correct”) in the business world, we tend to attribute both the successes and failures in business to the process and not the people. Performance issues become obfuscated as process issues. And as a result, we have a tendency to try and address the process instead of the performance within the process.

In the past direct and immediate feedback, both positive and negative was viewed as a cornerstone of a strong performing team. It is now difficult to single out an individual’s performance, either positively or negatively without the interaction being construed as either lavish praise, or anger. Neither of which are particularly conducive to positive team alignment or performance.

We all can be and should be sensitive to a certain extent about the feedback we receive. It should help and serve to drive us forward. We also need to understand that it is our own individual behaviors and performance that serve as the baseline for whatever feedback we receive. We also need to understand that while the feedback may be specific to an individual, it must be focused on specific performance items and cannot be construed as being personal in the way it is delivered.

Anger is a personal thing. It doesn’t belong in the professional environment. We are all human and sometimes it is hard not to get angry. Still we must try to maintain our focus. The focus must always be on the performance of the individual, and not the individual themselves. When dealing with performance we must stay at the professional level and not the personal one.

An Acquired Taste

Chances are that if you work long enough for companies in the public domain you are going to get to participate in either the acquiring of another company, or the being acquired by another company. Acquisitions and divestitures are a fact of life in the business world today. Companies continue to grow and change and acquisition and divestiture are one of the fastest ways to rapidly remake an organization. Having already been through a few of these types of management and organizational changes in past lives, it is very clear that both the change itself, and the time anticipating and leading up to the change can be a challenge to your leadership capabilities, not to mention your sanity to try and get through.

There are all sorts of trite adages and sayings regarding change that can be inserted here. I’ll leave to everyone to insert the one that they are most comfortable with. The bottom line here is that when there is an acquisition, you truly have a change.

No matter how much due diligence the acquiring company has done, they cannot be aware of all the capabilities and the people that make up the organization that they are acquiring. And no matter how much communication the acquired organization provides its staff, and no matter how much research has been done on the acquiring organization, no one can be fully prepared for the new management philosophy and new management structure that will be imposed after the acquisition.

Divestitures and acquisitions are interesting phenomena in that there are a disproportionately large number of people being affected by the change, with only a disproportionately very few who actually have any sort of input to or affect on the change itself. So, everybody ends up worrying about the coming change, but there are very few, if any who actually can do anything about it. The fact that they can’t do anything about the change doesn’t stop people from focusing on it almost to the point of total distraction.

Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be the source of the quote that everyone uses in times like these. Oddly enough it is known as the “Serenity Prayer” and it goes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I actually like this starting point, so I’m going to look at it in application to a business acquisition or divestiture.

Unless your organizational title begins with the word “Chief” and ends with word “Officer” chances are that you are probably not going to be consulted about any corporate acquisition or divestiture. It may be hard to believe but it seems that there are any number of individuals within an organization that feel this is truly some sort of mistake or oversight.

It’s not.

Unless an individual has the wherewithal to rapidly assemble another, competing acquisition or divestiture bid from another corporate entity or capital fund, this is the way it is going to stay. They are not going to ask for everyone’s, or possibly anyone’s opinion. The acquisition or divestiture is not going to be changed. This is where that “Serenity” portion of the prayer comes into play.

As difficult as it sounds, leaders cannot afford to spend time (read: waste time) worrying about the outcome of the acquisition. They need to remain focused on the achievement of their and the teams goals. At this point the team’s responsibility isn’t changing. Further the leader needs to keep the team as a whole, as well as the specific individuals within the team focused on their objectives as well. It is not an entirely easy thing to do.

This is where the “Courage” portion of the prayer comes into play.

As part of any acquisition or divestiture, decisions regarding who will be a leader in the resulting new organization and who will not, are going to be made. It is somewhat frustrating to all involved in that again a relative very few will be making decisions for the relative very many on these topics. As uncomfortable as that may sound, that is the way it is going to be. However, all is not left entirely to chance.

One of the key aspects that will be weighed and taken into account with these leadership decisions is going to be performance. It probably won’t be the only aspect reviewed, but it will be a key one.

Individual and team performance are items that can be changed. Leaders must have the courage to change their own and their team’s performance. They can probably change it for the worse by worrying about the acquisition or divestiture, or they can change it for the better by maintaining the focus on the business goals at hand. While it may be impossible to ignore the pending business change, it is probably best to acknowledge as an event that cannot be changed and move on to the topics and goals that can be changed.

There is a great disclaimer in just about every financial investment prospectus document that I have ever read. It goes (and there are several variations of it available):

“Past performance does not necessarily predict future results”

We have probably all seen it. It is a US Government Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandate that it be included in every investment prospectus.

So what do we do? We go and look at the investments that have done the best over some period of time, and select those to invest in anyway.

If they have done well in the past, we expect them to continue to do well in the future. What else do we have to go on? Are we really going to select those investments that have underperformed in the past in the expectation that they have obviously learned from those mistakes and they will henceforth only do better in the future?

I don’t think so.

My point here is that when the business organizational change is done and the decisions regarding positions and leaders are being made, one of the very few items that a leader can affect is their performance. And despite what the “disclaimer” may say, I think it is probably safe to position that past performance in business and leadership roles is a good predictor of future results.

It may not be the only input taken into account, but it is one of the very few that an individual can change.

That doesn’t seem to stop people from worrying about the outcomes of any acquisition or divestiture based changes though. I guess this is only natural. When there is uncertainty, people will have a tendency to focus on those uncertain aspects. This is also where that “wisdom” portion of the prayer comes into play for a leader.

A leader cannot deny or ignore the uncertainty that their team members or peers for that matter will feel with the pending organizational changes. To do so would only exacerbate the issue and create different forums for these concerns to be aired. That will not be a constructive situation for anyone involved.

As I noted above, team and individual concerns regarding the organizational and structural changes need to be acknowledged. They are real. There may not be much that anyone can do about them, but they do need to be acknowledged. Once the concerns are identified, the leader needs to walk the team through the known information and structure and restate what is currently unknown.

By identifying the unknown aspects of the pending changes, they are in essence then contained, and a brief discussion as to what the team and its individual members can do about them will be in order. The key here is the public acknowledgement of the concern and the discussion about what can be done to correct the situation.

This in turn will drive the team and individual acknowledgement that there probably isn’t much that they can do to address these topics. Neither the information nor the ability to modify these concerns resides in the organization. The team focus can then be shifted back to those topics and concerns that the team can affect and address which primarily are their objectives and performance against those objectives.

Acquisitions and divestitures of organizations are the business equivalent of tectonic shifts. They are truly events that are only dealt with and responded to as there are very few things that organizations can do to plan for and work on to address them. By their very nature, these sorts of changes and agreements are kept from the public eyes for all sorts of legal and competitive reasons. It is always this type of required secrecy that generates concern and disruption in all the organizations involved.

The fear of the unknown and the uncertainty that it generates regarding the future can be debilitating to an organization going through an acquisition or divestiture. In times when this has occurred it is the leader’s responsibility to have the wisdom to keep the team focused on the aspects of the business that the team can change, as well as the courage to acknowledge and address the concerns associated with items that cannot be changed.

I am not so sure that anyone gets to have any serenity in times of pending organizational change, but demonstrating wisdom and courage will probably get the team through.

Good Job

I have written in the past about the need to say “Thank You”. In our roles we are all dependent to some extent on others and our teams for our success and it seems too many times we neglect to recognize that fact and thank those that have helped achieve success. I have also written about the need when thanked to say “You’re Welcome”. Too many times we have the tendency to respond with some sort of less meaningful phrase such as “sure” or “no problem” or some other similar value reducing terminology. Doing this devalues the exchange to the point where we soon begin to wonder why no one has said thank you to us anymore. At the risk of sounding like some sort of overzealous disciple of Miss Manners I am going to stay somewhat in this vein and discuss the needs and benefits of letting people know when they have done a “Good Job”.

We like to think that we all live and work in one of those here to fore highly desirable risk and return environments. I really don’t think this is truly the case. We have all come to expect a supremely high level of performance and competency in all that we do. It is when expectations of performance reach these levels that in reality there is very little return available. When you expect perfection and receive perfection you are merely satisfied, not delighted. When that situation occurs all that remains in the expectation equation is the risk. I’ll illustrate with a couple of simple examples:

I have had a car for the last couple of years and it has been absolutely problem free. All I need to do is put gas in it, and occasionally bring it in for an oil change or service as is indicated and was expected when I bought it. It has run flawlessly and I am very happy with it.

Despite this near perfect performance, I have not bothered to call the dealership, or manufacturer for that matter, to tell them how much I appreciate their effort in producing such a fine car. It is in reality what I expected.

On the other hand however, should I go out to my car at the end of the day today and unexpectedly find that it will not start, or now requires towing and service and whatever else in order to return it to its previous performance level, there is probably a very good chance that I will make both of those calls to the dealership and the manufacturer to let them know of my relatively low level of contentment with their product and question them rather vociferously about their plans to rectify the situation.

On a similar and yet much broader example, I think the majority of us now get our internet / television / phone service delivered to our homes via some sort of communication service provider. For the most part these capabilities are also delivered at a very high level as well. And for the most part we have all come to expect, and possibly even depend on this level of service.

However, should we lose our internet connection capability while one of our children is in the midst of doing their last minute research for their assignment that is due the following morning, or heaven forbid we lose the video signal during one of our favorite television shows or during the big game, I suspect that there will be several calls into that provider both voicing displeasure and asking when the service will be restored.

Like I just said. There does not seem to be any further reward available for expected flawless performance, only the risk of disappointment and unhappiness when it is not achieved.

I think the same sort of approach has evolved in the business world. We bring people on and build teams expecting them to operate and perform at very high levels of competence and efficiency. This is obviously a given. If we didn’t think that the people could operate at very high levels of competency and performance we wouldn’t have selected them in the first place.

It is only when they occasionally don’t operate at these high levels of expected performance, or fail to achieve one of several stretch objectives that managers engage and provide immediate feedback, and when they do it is normally in the form of negative feedback. It’s sort of like the employee being the cable company when the cable goes out in the middle of the big game. They hear about it.

It doesn’t matter that the employee or the team may have been performing superbly for significant stretches before the issue. It doesn’t matter if the objective was reasonable or even achievable. Because we have continued to evolve ever higher levels of performance expectations, we are in fact little by little removing the “return” portion of the risk / return equation. There is no longer a return for performing well, only a risk for having an issue.

This approach can evolve businesses into a de facto negative reinforcement management style and structure. Instead of people striving to improve or do better, they in fact begin to work at avoiding the negative feedback.

On the surface this may sound like two sides of the same coin: striving to achieve and working to avoid failure, but in reality they are not. If there is no reward of any kind, including the simplest recognition, then there is no incentive for improvement or advancement. Avoiding failure means the incentive is just to perfect the status quo. The result is that you are not really trying to make things better; your effort is going into avoiding making them any worse.

I have worked in organizations where negative feedback avoidance as opposed to positive feedback incentives was the cultural norm. I believe that there are some structures where this approach may in fact prove appropriate, particularly in those areas where the “collective” aspect of the performance is more important than the individual’s.

I remember working for an Asian based company that had this negative feedback, more collective approach to things. The organization’s management viewed their value add to the business structure as their ability to focus on those objectives that weren’t achieved and goals that were not met. It was an eye opening experience.

During my first annual review, after a reasonably successful year, I was met with the following statement (and I am paraphrasing, but also very close to the actual statement):

“It seems that you have met all your goals for this year, but all in all, we actually expected better performance from you.”

I wish I had made that up, but I didn’t.

The fact remains that while there may not be a full balance in the risk and return equation for business performance, there at least needs to be some sort or recognized return. To put it a little simpler there needs to be some sort of carrot to offset the stick approach to management. I think the carrot starts with the simple acknowledgement that someone has met our expectations. In essence letting them know when they have done a “Good Job”.

It doesn’t need to be said all the time. I don’t think that any of us has a desire to have praise lavished upon us all the time. That would devalues the effect. However on occasion acknowledging the effort, which even though was expected or even defined and required in the job description or position profile, can go very far in maintaining a level of commitment to continuing to move the business forward.

Without this sort of positive reinforcement it is all too easy for a business to fall into the trap of not trying to move things forward and doing things the best way, but only trying to avoid the negative feedback associated while maintaining a performance that meets the current level. Performance measurement is no longer associated with who performs the best; it is now focused on who makes the fewest mistakes.

The problem is that the only person who makes no mistakes in business is the one who doesn’t do anything.

I am not proposing that providing compliments will correct all business issues. What I am saying is that occasionally recognizing those people that are performing at the expected high levels of achievement with the acknowledgement of “Good Job” will likely keep them more engaged and more likely to deliver the desired good job in the future.

…and no, “Not a Bad Job” is not an acceptable alternative acknowledgement.

Standing Out

I need to again give attribution to my Austrian friend. He made a comment about standing out in the crowd that rolled around in my head for a while and resulted in the following.

Standing out does not necessarily mean that you are outstanding. It will be wise to remember this. Write it on the inside of your notebook. Possibly even tattoo it on the palm of your hand in the spot where you once wrote your crib notes for tests in school. You will need to continually remind yourself of this fact as you go through your business career. That being said, while being outstanding is always nice, there is really only one way to make progress in the leadership ranks, and that is to stand out.

Standing out requires you to separate yourself from the rest of the office herd. This in itself is something of a risk. It is easy to stay quiet and do as you are told. This is also the way to be part of the crowd. The crowd is safe. If you really want to be safe you can stop reading here, and get up and go close your door, and lock it. You could also possibly put a desk or cabinet in front of it for further safety. This will assure that your door cannot be opened, from either side.

Also notice how I phrased it that you needed to stand out from the crowd and not necessarily be outstanding in the crowd. Being outstanding is always a good way to stand out, but not everyone is or even can be outstanding. As an example, let’s look at a few of the most significant military leaders for the United States in the twentieth century.

General George Patton commanded the US forces in the European theater during World War II. He graduated forty sixth out of one hundred three from the West Point Military Academy. He obviously was not outstanding at school. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander (and future president of the US) similarly graduated in the middle of his class at West Point. Similarly not outstanding at school. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the most recent of the leaders being discussed and commander of the Desert Storm operation in the 1990’s, is the only one who graduated in the top ten percent of his class at West Point.

My point here is that only one out of arguable three of the most famous military leaders of our recent times was even remotely regarded as being outstanding during their formative years in their chosen profession. To further this point (I really don’t know how I got started on this military bent other than it brings forward historical figures that we should all be familiar with), General George Custer (yes, that one of Little Big Horn fame) graduated last in his class at West Point. Yes, Last. I bring this up because it should also be noted that at the age of twenty three Custer became the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War and was regarded as one of the Union’s bravest and best leaders. Go figure.

With all that being said, how does one stand out in business? How does one become recognized as a leader? There are many different and various paths that can be taken in order to stand out, but I think they were in general reduced down to variations of the following three by my Austrian friend; be brilliant, be vocal, or be a pain in the ass. My addition to his analysis is that it may not be just any one of these paths that can lead to success. In some instances it may require someone to be a brilliant, vocal pain in the ass.

I would like to think of myself as nominally the brilliant leader of my family’s household, but I am pretty sure that my wife just considers me to be more of just a vocal pain in the ass.

Of the four leaders previously noted, only one, Schwarzkopf was considered to be brilliant. He was outstanding at West Point and was someone who was widely considered to be very intelligent and his class rank reflected that. But here as in business (as apparently in the military) brilliance will not be enough. There were plenty of cadets who graduated ahead of both Patton and Eisenhower who were probably likewise considered to be brilliant, but for some reason did not reach the heights that Patton and Eisenhower did.

This means that it is probably not just the brilliance that is important, but more so the application of that knowledge. You would assume that all the graduates from West Point accumulated roughly the same type and level of knowledge from that intnstitution, but it was not always the “brilliant” ones that advanced. Brilliance seems to be able to provide an edge or an advantage but in and of itself probably will not carry the day. I find this point to be somewhat heartening since I did not graduate at the top of my class nor can I claim to be particularly brilliant either.

That must mean that it is the being vocal, and / or the being a pain in the ass that will have a major effect on standing out and success. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Being vocal, or the being a pain in the ass means you are communicating, and it is the communicating of your ideas, positions or solutions that will enable you to stand out.

Please don’t get me wrong. I think being smart is better than not being smart. No one likes a vocal idiot, and an ignorant pain in the ass has all the attributes that Darwin’s theory of evolution would indicate nature would select against.

Custer performed the worst at West Point, but also achieved the general’s rank far faster than any of the others we are discussing. He is also probably best remembered for his reported folly in taking a contingent of approximately 500 soldiers into battle against a force close to 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Sitting Bull. However before that event, during the Civil War, Custer was acknowledged as a military strategist, tactician and leader who clearly proposed his goals and then would lead every one of his campaigns from the front of his column, and achieve his objective. He may have had many failings, some of which obviously may have led to his demise, but it seems that it was his ability to set and communicate his objectives (be vocal) to both his men and his superiors, and then to lead (successfully) from the front (taking the risk himself) that made him stand out from so many of the others in the military at that time.

With all that being said about Custer, it is also always a good idea to have much better information than he did when it comes to understanding any potential opposition that may be standing between you to your stated goals.

I guess you are considered vocal when your opinions, beliefs and actions are in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it would seem that the equivalent definition of a pain in the ass would be when your opinions, beliefs and actions are not in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it seems to me that I may have made a career out of being a pain in the ass (and not just according to my wife).

This does not mean that you should avoid being considered a pain in the ass. Most leaders that I know search out those people who have a considered different opinion from their own. As a leader I already have an opinion. I hope that it is considered and well thought out (however my wife usually doesn’t think so). I need other, different opinions to help me ascertain whether my opinion is the best one or if there are better ones out there. I can only do this when those other opinions are communicated to me.

Whether or not those communicated opinions come from people that agree with me (the vocal ones) or those that don’t (the pains in the ass), I have to figure out which are generated by the brilliant and which are not so much. Either way it is those that take a stand and put forth an opinion that get noticed. And of those it is usually the ones that have put in the effort, time and thought to intelligently support their opinion that truly stand out.

Now the last question left to resolve will be:
If I have an opinion that is different from my wife’s by logic it means that she has a different opinion from me. Does that make me a pain in her ass, or is she a pain in mine? I guess it depends on who is nominally in charge at our house.

Ouch. I think I may have to rethink that last little bit.

Attrition: Causes and Cures

Just as every leader understands that each assignment is a step in their career, they also need to understand that the same is true for each of their team members. It is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of complacency when it comes to team members. As a leader you have spent a significant amount of time assembling the best, brightest and most skilled team possible. Your team consistently produces exemplary results. Now you notice that they are leaving, and not just a few at a time but in significant numbers. There is no question about it. You have an attrition problem. Now what?

As is usual in business if you are recognizing that you have a problem it probably already is too late. This truly applies to attrition. By the time you recognize that there are more people leaving than would be normally associated with standard career transitions, you will have almost assuredly lost more talent than you want from your team, and more importantly you will have a significant number of additional team members that are probably in one stage or another of their exit process as well. The time to worry about attrition is before it happens. I’ll talk about avoiding attrition later. The question now is what to do about an unwanted attrition issue. Once it starts attrition can and will take on a life of its own.

The key to calming an attrition stampede is to understand on what level the issues of discontent are rooted. Is it a corporate wide issue, a business unit issue, or an individual level issue? Is it based on rumor or actual business performance? Maybe they just don’t like you anymore. Whatever it is that is causing good people to leave faster than you want, you had better find out. I said faster than you want because as I noted above, each assignment is a step in everybody’s career. It is usually not their end point destination. There will always be people transitioning on to their next career step. This is healthy for them and the organization. As with just about everything else in the world today though, too much of a good thing can be bad.

If the issue is deemed to be a corporate wide issue, it will usually be caused by either conflicting or ineffective messages being sent by the corporation’s senior most management. In times of senior management change or poor corporate performance a very clear and concise set of messages regarding strategic directions and plans needs to be openly communicated. Team members understand that change may take time and can usually be patient in order to see the results of the changes, to a point. The more specific the senior management actions and activities that can be identified that are to be taken, the more patient the team can be. However the team will need eventually to be able to see and identify progress against the actions in order to feel secure enough to remain through the period of corporate instability.

If the issue is thought to be on a business unit level, a cause will also need to be identified. Business unit attrition related causes are usually attributable to the business unit performance. If the business unit team believes that the unit has been identified as a troubled or “problem” business, they will try to anticipate senior management actions associated with improving business performance (cost reductions, travel freezes, lay-offs, etc.) and look to transition to other opportunities in other businesses or business units that are not so troubled. Again communicating a clear and concise set of actions for the business may help stem the attrition stampede, but there probably truly is no way to stop this one. People usually like to feel that they are part of a winning team, and in this case they will always look elsewhere if they feel the chances for success on their current team will be limited by the overall team perception or performance.

If the attrition is truly localized into one specific organization then it may be an individual based attrition. This is usually the result of an interpersonal or management technique conflict between the team manager and the team. If it is happening to your specific team you had better be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself the difficult questions regarding you and your relationship to the team. If your role is to try and turn around an underperforming team and you are a change agent, then you can honestly expect that some team members may not be comfortable with the new direction and choose to leave. If you are picking up a new team that has been performing well and they are choosing to leave, then you had better understand those issues quickly. Issues such as frustration or a perceived slight at being passed over in the selection of a new leader can be a generating event in the starting of an attrition wave.

The time to worry about attrition, like forest fires and tooth decay is before it happens. Attrition prevention is far more preferable than having to rapidly implement corrective actions to try and stem the outward flow of talent. Attrition also requires an honest assessment of the issues. Too many times teams will try to equivocate and split hairs as to exactly how the definition, measurement or importance of attrition is to be set. Managers may have a tendency to try and justify higher levels of attrition as acceptable in light of certain factors. They may try to differentiate between attrition of people leaving the group for other groups within the same company and those that leave the company for another company. This direction is normally taken by groups that are suffering from attrition and either cannot or do not have the ability to address the underlying attrition causing issues. Regardless of how it is positioned, attrition is still the unwanted exiting of employees from a defined group or population.

The solution to attrition prevention is very similar to the solution to attrition itself; communication. The difference is that leaders will actually communicate clearly to their teams the challenges in front of them as well as the specific actions that are being put in place and being taken to address them. Managers will usually wait until there is a recognizable attrition issue before communicating. Leaders will be proactive in acknowledging the business issues and position with the team and preparing them for the actions to be taken. In many instances the corrective actions that are outlined to the team may encompass some unpleasant but necessary business activities such as lay-offs and other cost cutting measures. By getting them out into the open early leaders can at least begin to control the realities of what needs to be done and the accompanying rumors (which are almost always worse than the actual truth) can be minimized.

Attrition is expensive in that when people leave they take all that they know and all they have learned with them. They take a proficiency that they have acquired over time that can only be replaced with a similar amount of time and experience. Attrition leaves the remaining team short staffed and over worked (two incremental issues that can add to the underlying attrition causes) while replacements are sought. Attrition reduces the efficiency of the entire team as the replacement is searched for, located, brought on board and then comes up to speed in the needs of the position. Transitions of any type, at the corporate CEO level or the individual contributor all go much smoother when they are anticipated, planned for and executed as opposed to responding to the unexpected exit associated with attrition. The time to plan for and implement an attrition strategy is well before any issues arise, and any attritions starts.


Whenever a business enters the fourth quarter of the year, everyone’s attention inevitably turns to the topic that they had already been anticipating for the previous three quarters of the year – the possibility of, potential for, or pending business reorganization.

If it has been a good year there is always the possibility of a reorganization in order to move resources from underperforming business units to growing businesses to take advantage of the market conditions. If it has been a fair year for the business there is always the potential for a reorganization in the hopes of kick-starting the business for the next year. If it has been a year of underperformance, or worse another year of underperformance, chances are that a reorganization is not only a probability, it is probably pending.

Reorganizations are interesting events in a business. Leaders have a tendency to try and keep the structural changes a secret until they can be fully announced. This tends to be a futile effort on several levels. On the first level, when people are involved, as they must be for a reorganization, information regarding the potential changes is going to get out. When a number of people are involved, or are providing input, someone will talk. If people become aware of pending changes before the full structure is in place, it can cause them to behave in ways detrimental to the current organizational structure in anticipation of the future structure.

On the other hand if the number of people involved in the reorganization is held to a minimum, and the information is tightly controlled, the reorganizational changes can be withheld from the business. While this may sound like the preferable situation, in reality the lack of knowledge can cause the organization several issues as well. Instead of focusing on the business and opportunities at hand, the team will have a tendency to become more internally focused on exactly how the reorganization will manifest itself. It can also cause team members to feel somewhat alienated by the fact that they were not involved or consulted regarding potential changes affecting their careers.

The best statement that I have heard to describe this situation is: If during a reorganization you present your employees with a blank page regarding information on where they will work and what they will do, you will not like the story that they will write, and neither will they.

A fine line must be walked when reorganizing. Enough team involvement to get commitment and assure an intelligent and logical structure is put in place to position the business for future growth. Not so many people involved that the situation becomes unwieldy and proprietary information is too readily available and becomes distracting to the business. Some information needs to be provided to the team in order to minimize the internal speculation and distraction to the organization, but not so much information about future organizations that it begins to affect current business structures and behaviors.

The key to maintaining organizational focus during and through a reorganization is going to be the length of time that the reorganization takes to complete. In general, the shorter the amount of time involved the better. Like removing a Band-Aid that needs to be changed, doing it quickly minimizes the discomfort.  There will be less time for information to prematurely filter out into the organization and less time for the distraction of the team associated with speculation on the new business structures.

Some organizations have tried to break down the reorganizing process into shorter or smaller steps and announce each step as a way to minimize the distraction to the business. The example would be to reorganize one business group (vertically) or one management level (horizontally) and then announce the results in an effort to keep information flowing and minimize business distraction and disruption during an extended reorganization process. Again, time will be of the essence here. Until the final reorganization announcement has been made, and noted as the final announcement, the business team’s focus cannot be fully on the customer and conducting business with them. Speculation on the wisdom of the last step and the potential future structures and moves associated with the next step will continue until the reorganization process is over.

Reorganizations are rarely an enjoyable experience for anyone. Those that are doing the reorganizing are making difficult decisions that will affect the careers of the people on the team and the success of the organization in the future, while trying to make sure that current performance objectives are met. Those that are being reorganized are concerned about their careers while at the same time continuing to try and perform their current jobs. The less time that these incremental stresses are applied to either group, the better it will be for the business. If the decision is made to reorganize, the optimal approach is to generate a reorganization plan and execute it as rapidly as possible.

That is easy enough to say, but in reality experience has shown that it is difficult to do.

Difficult Conversations

When was the last time you held a difficult conversation? I am not talking about having an argument. Anybody can have an argument. Arguments are usually unproductive for the participants and rarely provide a beneficial value to the business. I am referring to having a civilized conversation with someone about a potentially unpleasant or difficult business topic. In the business world difficult or unpleasant conversations normally revolve around what you feel may be improper conduct, low performance or lack of goal attainment. These conversations can be positioned in a number of ways depending on who you are talking to and what the objective of the conversation is. Whether you are trying to provide guidelines as to what future performance or behaviors are acceptable and expected, informing someone that past performance or behaviors were not acceptable, or explaining to an executive that micro-management is unproductive and that they need to delegate more responsibility, a business leader must be prepared to deal with difficult performance or behavior issues, as well as being prepared to recognize and encourage the desirable ones.

I think that we would all prefer to avoid conflict or unpleasant situations. Unfortunately as business leaders we are responsible to make decisions that may be unpopular, enforce standards of performance and behavior, as well as make sure the consequences associated with behaviors and performance are enacted. If leaders fail to address issues directly with individuals and teams, or fail render appropriate consequences, they run the risk of allowing the entire business to become demoralized.

I would like to believe that positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors and outcomes would be sufficient incentive for all individuals and teams. I have however found that this is not necessarily the case in all situations. If there are positive reinforcements for good performance, there must also be difficult conversations associated with those factors and areas that need improvement. I have found a key here is to make sure to separate the behavior / conduct / performance in question from the person you are having the difficult conversation with. A negative reaction or review cannot be seen as a personal attack. Staying simple, direct and factual have always worked best for me in these situations.

On the other side of the coin I have also been associated with managers who not only did not shy away from difficult conversations, but could best be described as too aggressive and confrontational when it came to addressing a team member’s performance improvement requirements. If the team begins to feel that the negative feedback and consequences outweigh the positive reinforcements, they can again as a group begin to feel disenfranchised in the organization and their performance will also suffer.

For me difficult conversations seem to come in variations of two general approaches. The first approach is to focus on what sort of future performance state is acceptable. In this way the focus is on what is desirable going forward, whether it is a behavior, performance or goal. The person you are talking with may not have achieved, behaved or performed in the past, but you are making sure they know what is expected in the future. This approach seems to work best when there are definable or measurable standards that people must be held accountable to.

The second approach to difficult conversations is a little more tenuous, at least for me. This is the approach where you are focusing on what is unacceptable about the past state. I have had to use this approach when team members or colleagues have conducted themselves in manners that while not adversely affecting their business performance, could be seen as detrimental to the team. The idea here is that it is impossible to tell everyone what they must do for the team to operate at its highest levels. Sometimes you need to make sure that it is clear what they must not do. Instead of saying what is desirable in the future, you are saying what is undesirable about the past. 

Either way, it is important for the leader to quickly, clearly and professionally address the negative issues associated with the individual and team performance. I think we would all much prefer to only have to recognize good performance and to provide positive reinforcement. However, if we don’t have the difficult conversation when it is called for, we run the eventual risk of fewer and fewer opportunities to recognize good performance.


It has taken me a long time to learn how to be quiet. Sometimes I still forget what I have learned. I believe that to be a good leader you need to have strong goals, convictions and opinions. It is those things that help drive you on to achievement. What I wrongly supposed was that in having those leadership traits that you needed to express them verbally in the public forum.

Having goals, convictions and opinions have normally in the course of business brought me into various levels of conflict and contention with others who may not have the same opinion set. How and where the conflict was handled has contributed significantly to how I have been perceived in the organization.

Public forums, conference calls, etc. are best used for building the consensus. Conflict here has a tendency to polarize the group and slow progress for all. If there is a disagreement, I have found that I will try to take it off line and address it privately. That way a solution to an issue can be presented to the group, instead of just presenting an issue. As hard as it may be for the people who know me to believe, I am trying to apply the word of Will Rogers when it comes to conflict in public forums. Will had the great phrase:

“Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”

I have been working on it. I think it is working. However, in these efforts I am also reminded of the story told by Ron White, a standup comedian from here in Texas. Ron tells the story of having a few too many drinks and subsequently being arrested. During the arresting process the police officer started to read him his rights. As we all know the first right is the right to remain silent. Ron White’s comment in this case was:

“I had the right to remain silent. I just didn’t have the ability to remain silent”

Being silent doesn’t mean that you concur or agree with all that is discussed. For me being silent, while difficult, affords me time to examine questions from multiple directions instead of just the first one that comes to mind. I have learned that if I disagree, instead of presenting what can be construed as an open challenge in the forum, that I can get far more done, even in the course of a disagreement, in a less public setting.

I should note that silence should not be the rule in all public business forums. If that were the case conference calls would be pretty quiet and very short. Constructive comments and suggestions for alternatives need to be made. It is the unproductive conflict that should be reduced. As I have said it has taken me a while to learn the difference between the two.

I continue to work on channeling my inner Will Rogers in not missing the opportunity to shut up, in those instances when in the past I would have been like Ron White and not had the ability to remain silent. It’s difficult, but I think it is just as important to the leader as having the convictions and opinions that drive us forward, and cause the conflict.