How Do You Manage A Leadership Transition?

I have a client going through a leadership transition. The former leader is gone and her successor has yet to be identified. Everyone is confronting the great unknown, and typically the direct reports are not in control of the outcome. It’s a scary, stressful time for these people. As usual, I don’t think I have the answer to how you should manage through this situation, but I do have some thoughts.

Communication is a very important factor for these direct reports. During the search for the replacement, complete transparency is most often not achievable – partially because candidates don’t want to jeopardize their current position. So you can’t announce who is under consideration. In addition, the candidate pipeline is in continuous flux, with candidates in different stages of the selection process. The moment you update your team, the readings on the flux capacitor will have changed. Although they’ll understand this intellectually, it provides little or no emotional comfort. But give them as much information as you can, as frequently as you can.

Listening is monumentally important. Ask them what they’d like to see in a new leader. Ask them about their concerns. Ask them for their thoughts and suggestions. Ask them how you can best support them during this situation. And most importantly, find things you can do immediately based on what you’ve heard.

Appoint an acting leader so team members have someone who’s carrying their flag, meeting their needs, setting direction and dealing with outstanding issues. This acting leader should make firm decisions, which will reduce the general air of uncertainty.

Make sure the former leader’s boss invests more time with these individuals, to give them strong support and to demonstrate their significance to the organization.

Do everything you can to keep people focused on productive activities, and highlight successes and progress. But be understanding and tolerant. Different individuals will deal with this stressful situation differently. You might see some behaviors you’d rather not see. Negative relationships and other forms of dysfunction could intensify. Teams that go into this situation with strong, positive relationships are better equipped to weather this storm.

One final note. I was in this situation once. I was a hotel human resources director at that time. The general manager, whom we loved and respected, got transferred. We, the direct reports, were really bummed out. Because we loved this guy so much, we couldn’t imagine a better future. It had to get worse. It was very stressful.

Well, after a while our new boss arrived. Short, German guy. Name of Horst Schulze. Although we could not conceive of it, our situation actually improved. Horst was much better than the former general manager. Under his leadership our business results improved, our service improved, our culture improved, and we all grew as hoteliers and as leaders.

So here’s the moral of the story. You must consciously remind people that this situation presents the real possibility for improvement and growth. In all likelihood, the team will be stronger and everyone will be better off.

The truth is that the future is always unknown. A leader welcomes the future. A leader instills hope. A leader encourages people to follow him or her into the future with the confidence that no matter what happens we’ll figure it out together.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Is Giving Up Ever The Best Choice?

I watch a lot of boxing. It’s a dangerous sport. The primary job of the referee is to ensure the safety of two guys who are aggressively trying to hurt each other so badly their opponent can’t continue. Stepping in the ring takes a considerable amount of courage. Also, it’s a “sudden death” sport. Even if a boxer is losing decisively, one good punch can win the fight for him.

Last night I watched a fight in which the two boxers were not equally matched. One guy was getting the living daylights beat out of him. But he was a professional boxer — full of courage, determination and heart. He would not give up. Therefore, you cannot leave that decision up to the boxer. The trainer and the referee know that they must make that decision.

Often, our direct reports are full of determination. They’re not the kind of people who give up, even when they’re not succeeding, even when they’re in a bad fit, even when they’re miserable. That’s an admirable trait. I want people like that on my team. But sometimes, like a trainer, you have to throw in the towel. Sometimes you have to recognize when it’s not in the best interest of the employee or the business to fight on.

There’s no formula for knowing when it’s time. But ask yourself these questions. Does the situation require behaviors that are not in the employee’s repertoire? Have you taught, coached and given the employee ample time to learn? Has the employee tried his or her best? Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that additional effort will turn the situation around?

On the day you realize that additional efforts will not lead to success, then you know it’s time.

Is someone who reports to you in this situation? If you care about them, do the right thing. It’s what trainers do when they care deeply about their fighter. It’s what you should do if you truly care about this employee.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Struggling With Delegation? Do You Have Trouble Letting Go?

Recently I received an invitation (that is, a solicitation) to attend a seminar on the principles of effective delegation. The invitation targeted managers who are struggling with delegation, implying that they’ll delegate more if they learn more about the right way to do it. I think the hesitancy to delegate is about something more fundamental than the “how”. I think it’s about the “who”. That’s the topic of this post.

Newly promoted supervisors and managers often struggle with delegation. Previous to the promotion they were individual performers. They know they can perform certain tasks with excellence, but now they have to trust others to perform these tasks. This pushes many new managers way outside their comfort zones. You might be in this situation.

Certainly it will help to learn more about how to delegate, but it’s much more important to learn as much as possible about your people. Because identifying the right person is the most important aspect of delegation. And the right person is not only someone who will do the task with excellence, but also it’s someone you trust.

Build your plays around your players. First, think about who will do the task with excellence. The more you know about each of your people, the easier it will be to make this decision.

Do you know:

  • Their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What they’re passionate about?
  • What motivates them?
  • What their career goals are?
  • Whether they’ll find this assignment attractive and engaging?

If you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to determine whether this assignment is a good fit for them. If it’s a good fit, you’ll have confidence in their capability and motivation to perform with excellence.

In addition, you need to assess your personal relationship with that person. How close are you? Aside from the fit considerations, how much to you trust this person? This is a relationship issue. If trust is low, knowing more about how to delegate will not remove this barrier. If trust is low, ask yourself, “Why don’t I trust this person?” and, “Am I willing to work on building trust?” If you don’t trust this person, delegation will never go well.

Delegation always involves risk. No amount of knowledge about how to delegate will eliminate this risk. You must understand that mistakes will be made. Things will go wrong. But if you’ve delegated to the right people, you’ll find that they also so some things even better than you would have done. When it comes to delegation, that’s where the treasure is buried.

Growth always involves going outside your comfort zone. You might be apprehensive about delegating, but you don’t have to let that feeling control your behavior. Identify the right person and take a risk. Where would you be today if someone hadn’t taken a risk on you?

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt many readers have valuable advice about delegating. I’d love to hear from you.

Larry Sternberg

What Do Your Communication Protocols Communicate?

Today the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced publicly the firing of its football coach, which is very big news in Nebraska. I started thinking about communication protocols. That’s the topic of this post.

Undoubtedly, certain people were told about the firing decision even before the coach. Once the coach was told, he might well have discussed his preferences about how the news would be announced going forward. In what order should different individuals/groups find out? Who should tell them? How should they be told? The answers to these questions communicate how significant one is to the organization and/or to the central figures of the event.

You don’t want to find out through a Facebook status update that your significant other is leaving you. You don’t want to find out through an all-employee email that your direct supervisor is resigning. You must think beyond the content. Communication protocols are extremely important to people. For this reason alone, it must matter to you as a leader. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.”

When important information must be communicated, make a plan. It would be nice to think that we can control how this information gets out, but there’s always a grape vine. And with today’s technology social communications easily outpace formal communications. So understand that you’ll lose control rapidly. Here are some things to think about.

  • Write your mass communication immediately, so you can issue it when the informal system outpaces your plan.
  • What individuals/groups are most significantly impacted by this information?
  • Who should tell them?
  • How should they be told?
  • When should they be told?
  • Who can/should they share this information with?

Take action immediately. Execute the plan with great urgency. I repeat, you’ll lose control rapidly.

For those individuals on your list to be told one-on-one, continue to execute your plan even if the word is out before you speak to them. They understand the world we live in, and they’ll still appreciate the personal communication. It will still serve as an important sign of their significance.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and even if you aren’t American I invite you to participate. It’s not about religion, it’s not about patriotism and it’s not about gifts. It’s about thankfulness, appreciation and gratitude.

As leaders, we’re trying to make things better. So we spend most of our time focusing on problems, on what’s wrong, on what we’re dissatisfied with, and what needs to be improved. Our brains are wired to see what’s wrong and this wiring has great survival value. Furthermore, dissatisfaction is intensely motivational. People who are satisfied with the status quo are not motivated to pursue improvements. So there’s a very healthy sense in which leaders are never satisfied, and that’s a good thing. But we can overdo the focus on what’s wrong. We can become hyper critical.

Because of our brain’s wiring, we have to work to focus on what’s right. It requires intention. Think about the people you truly care about. Everyone else is focusing on what’s wrong with them. When it comes to people, you can make a decision to focus on what’s right about them.

And during this season of Thanksgiving, you can write them notes about what you like about them, why you appreciate them, and why you’re grateful to have them in your life. Think about it. When was the last time someone wrote you this kind of note? How did it make you feel? Doesn’t happen very often does it?

You probably think you don’t have time to do this, with all the time you’re spending on what’s wrong. But you know the truth. You make time for things that are important to you.

My mother used to say, “Larry, tell me you love me.” I’d reply, “Mom, you know I love you.” And she’d say, “Yeah, but I like to hear you say it.”

I’m sure there are people who’d like to hear you say it. This is an important part of leadership. So I invite you to participate in Thanksgiving. It only takes a few minutes. Write a couple of notes of appreciation and affirmation. I promise it’ll be richly rewarding.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Larry Sternberg

Alignment: Where Is The Goldilocks Zone?

Much has been written about the importance of alignment. But lately I’ve noticed that attaining alignment is more nuanced than we usually acknowledge. It’s more art than science. Too much alignment diminishes both commitment and creativity. In the extreme, you’ll get a dictatorship. Too little alignment diminishes focus and wastes productive energy. In the extreme you’ll get anarchy. Dictatorships can at least function. Anarchies cannot. So where’s the Goldilocks Zone? And how does a leader get people into that zone? That’s the art. As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts.

First, you staunchly insist on adherence to your core — your mission, vision and values. This is where it’s okay to use your power. But you’re always going to run into grey areas, situations where it’s not clear what’s the right thing to do. In these cases, before using your power, I suggest open discussion about the various options and how each one aligns with your core values. You might well not achieve alignment through these discussions. But when you do use your power, people who disagree will know that they’ve been heard. It’s usually not the leader’s decision that really bothers people, it’s the process. Transparency has immense value.

If a person frequently feels out of alignment with decisions at this level, if he frequently feels that leaders are not making the right decisions, he should seek another organization.

The more nuanced situations occur when you have a strategy or an outcome in mind, but your people aren’t convinced about it. You might use your power to say, essentially, “We’re going in this direction. I’m happy to discuss your concerns, but we’re moving forward on this.” You’ve made your position clear. You’ve set direction. After you’ve listened, there’s more you should do. You should ask for the order. “I know you have concerns, but please give this a chance. Please support this and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it.” You’ve asked for alignment, even though the person has misgivings. At first, you’ll get compliance rather than commitment. Sometimes that’s the best you can do at that point in time.

A frequent variation on this occurs after your people have accepted the direction (perhaps not enthusiastically), and they aren’t in alignment about how to move forward. Of course, as the leader it’s your obligation to suggest an approach. But there will be times when people just don’t feel good about the approach. They don’t align. They might comply with your direction, but both their commitment and engagement are low. This is very much not the Goldilocks zone.

When you’re in this situation, I assure you it doesn’t feel good to them. The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that it doesn’t feel good to you either. You need to state your commitment to figuring out an approach they can support. You need to listen to them and make changes. And you need to keep making changes until you find something they’ll support. This can be frustrating for all involved. If you believe in your strategy, you need to have some intestinal fortitude. Acknowledge the frustration, stay committed and ask them to stay committed to figuring it out.

There are times when you’re better off finding a direction or an approach your people will voluntarily embrace, rather than forcing your ideas on them. You can’t use your power to push people into the Goldilocks zone. So here’s where the art comes in. Knowing when it’s time to stop pushing people in a certain direction and instead become aware of what direction they want to go. And embrace it. Align with them and see what happens. You might learn something.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do Rational Arguments Fail?

Persuasion is an important element of leadership. Leaders in business, politics, and community service organizations are constantly persuading people (including employees) to get behind their ideas for creating a better future. Rational arguments fall short because our decisions and behavior are heavily influenced by emotions. This is why negative political campaigning is so pervasive. Fear is a very powerful motivator. It often overrides rational behavior. It might be distasteful, but it works.

Leadership is about improving the status quo, and improvement involves change. Rational arguments should be put forth, but expecting people to act rationally is folly. We must accept the central role played by emotions and use that knowledge to persuade people to voluntarily support our ideas.

In the absence of persuasion, by the way, a leader must resort to raw power. And the use of power will gain compliance, but not commitment. The more a leader resorts to power, the more she diminishes her legitimacy. It’s a short-term strategy.

Change always involves risks, and fear of the unknown is ever present. Part of the leader’s job is to en-courage her followers. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is moving forward despite the presence of fear. To en-courage is to motivate people to move forward — to take risks and move into the unknown.

A rational argument, a business case, provides justification, but it doesn’t create the energy necessary to move forward. A leader’s self-confidence and genuine caring attracts others. Her passion and determination are contagious. Her belief in the capability of her team is empowering.

Are you using your emotions to en-courage people to move forward despite their concerns and fears?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg