Should You Hire People Who Are Better Than You?

Are you kidding me? Can you believe this is even a topic of discussion in 2015? Recently I became aware that some leaders continue to wonder about this. So here are my thoughts.

The answer is, “Yes,” by the way. But let’s not naively believe that this makes the leader’s life problem-free. Every strategy brings benefits and drawbacks. Would you rather come to work every day dealing with the problems presented by leading a group of mediocre performers, or the problems associated with a group of high-potential people? I prefer the latter.

What problems do high potential people present? The most fundamental challenge for the leader is to answer the following questions:

  • How do I keep this person engaged and excited to come to work?
  • How do I help them explore their potential?
  • How do I help them progress rapidly?
  • How do I avoid feeling threatened by them?
  • How do I keep them from being recruited away?

Most importantly, cultivate close relationships with your high potential players. The closer you are, the more influence you have. The closer you are the more you’ll know about their needs, passions and aspirations. Make it clear that you seek their greatest good. Extend yourself to ensure that their needs are being met, and that they see a very desirable future in your company.

Tell them clearly you see their potential and your goal is to help them progress as rapidly as possible. Make sure you know what they want to learn and help them learn it. Take risks on them. Give them assignments that require them to stretch. While doing this, express your sincere belief and expectation that they’ll perform with excellence. Make sure these assignments enable them to add significant value to the organization.

Empower them to make decisions and try their ideas. Not only will this accelerate their growth, but also it’ll contribute to your growth. You must be willing to learn from them.

Be their champion. Celebrate their successes.

Don’t control them. Lead. Teach. Influence. But don’t control. Accept that they’re going to make some mistakes. If you control them, the outcomes are your outcomes, not theirs. No growth will result. High potential people hate micro management. Even if you disagree with a particular decision, ask yourself, “Does this decision bring the risk of great harm to the organization?” If not, let them proceed despite your misgivings.

If you’re threatened by high potential players, recognize that feeling threatened is only a feeling. It does not have to control your behavior. No matter how you feel, you can choose the right behaviors. It’s not always easy, but it can be done.

Great leaders want high potential players whose performance elevates the entire organization. They want to develop people who will lead the organization to greater heights after they’re gone. This requires recruitment of people who will be better than they are.

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

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Make Friends With At Work?

OK, the grammar of the title is terrible, but that’s the way I’d say it in conversation. Sometimes proper grammar feels a little pretentious to me.

Recently an associate forwarded to me the following request from a media outlet asking for comments on making friends at work. Here’s their request:

We are looking for people who can comment for an article about the people you should make friends with at work, and why. Who are the people who are important to your career? Who are the people who can help you be happy at work? Who are the ones who can help you or be someone you can rely on? We are looking for tips on how to identify these people as well as how to know what level of friendship you should have with your co-workers.

The requestor wants to know who and why. I think the “why” is most important, because once you know why you’d like to make friends with someone, the “who” follows. Do you make friends with someone because you want something from them? Would you tell them that? If not, you have a hidden agenda. You’re using them. That’s not my idea of friendship.

I’m not saying it’s wrong in any way to pursue a relationship with someone who can help you with your career or bring you other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I can bring you benefits x, y and z. And you can bring me benefits a, b, and c. Let’s start a relationship.” That might be a positive, mutually beneficial relationship, but it’s not a friendship. It’s a business deal.

Think about your current friends. Why did you become friends? Why does your friendship continue? Your answers likely are different than mine. Whatever your reasons are, why would they be different for people at work vs. people in your personal life?

Whether at work or in my personal life, here are some of my reasons:

  • The other person likes, values and appreciates me.
  • I admire the person.
  • I think I can help that person.
  • We have good chemistry.
  • The person has a good sense of humor and can at least tolerate mine.
  • I look forward to spending time with that person. We enjoy each other’s company.
  • I can be myself with that person.
  • We trust each other. We seek each other’s greatest good.
  • We’re loyal to each other. We can count on each other.
  • My situation requires me to work with or spend a lot of time with that person.

I could probably list more criteria, but you get the gist. When those criteria exist, I want to be that person’s friend whether we work together or not.

The requestor’s final question is what level of friendship should you have with your co-workers? My answer is: Do not place limits on the depth of your friendships with co-workers. The world is full of misguided thinking that passes for wisdom. People are taught not to get close with their co-workers or with their direct reports. Do not heed that advice. To read more on this topic, click here: Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

What would your life be like if you worked every day with a group of good friends?

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

Larry Sternberg

Must We Make A Business Case For Everything?

I suspect many people will view this post as heresy. For those who’ve worked with me over the years, it might well serve as additional confirmation that I don’t have a clue about business. I envision an angry mob of MBA’s outside my house (at night, of course) carrying pitchforks and torches.

As you can infer from the title, I believe there are some goals and strategies we should pursue as ends in themselves, and therefore we need not justify them in terms of improved business outcomes. Here’s an example: We should operate with impeccable integrity.

I absolutely know that many readers will immediately proffer arguments that operating with integrity does in fact lead to improved business outcomes. Did you go there? That’s my point. That’s how deeply embedded the business case mentality is. Maybe operating with integrity does lead to improved business outcomes. But do we really need to justify it on that basis? Can’t we just say, “That’s the way we want to be,” without additional justification?

If we justify integrity based on business outcomes, we acknowledge that there might be situations where not operating with integrity would produce better business outcomes. Think about the tobacco companies. Think about Enron. Think about sub-prime loans. Individuals in those companies chose unethical behaviors because to them the choice between integrity and dishonesty was based on business outcomes.

Here are some other strategies that might not be subject to business outcome justification:

  • Treating employees with compassion
  • Fostering transparency
  • Giving back to the community
  • Cultivating a culture of high trust and empowerment
  • Encouraging people to have fun at work
  • Promoting a culture of continuous learning and development
  • Ensuring the workplace is free from sexual harassment and discrimination

I hope that for every reader at least some of these items would fall into the category of not needing business case justification. Now, here’s the thing. Which items fall into that category will vary by person. It depends on your values, your fundamental principles, and your commitments as a leader. It depends on how you want to be and how you want your organization to be.

So I believe we should move away from requiring everything to be justified by asking how it improves our business outcomes. For some things it ought to be enough to say, “We want it for its own sake.”

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Teach New Employees About Your Culture?

A client recently asked me this question, and I’ve noticed it’s coming up in various places on the Internet. So I’m joining the conversation.

Every community of people has a definable culture whether they know it or not, and I believe that every organization should be intentional about articulating the fundamental beliefs, values and desired behaviors that define the culture. However, as you know, certain important aspects of your culture emerged organically and unintentionally. Those should be articulated as well, but often they are not.

Here’s an example. When I was with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company competitiveness was an extremely important aspect of the culture. It might not be so now, but it was then. To thrive in that company a leader had to have a burning desire to be #1, to be the absolute best, to outperform his/her peers internally and to crush all external competitors – and to do whatever it took to achieve those outcomes.

Here’s another example. To thrive in my current company a high tolerance for ambiguity is required. We don’t adhere rigidly to one way of doing things. There are few policies. Precedent does not control. We adjust for individual situations, individual client needs, and individual associate preferences. So when a new associate asks, “How do we do X?” Most often the answer is an unsatisfying, “It depends.”

Teaching about the organization culture should begin during the selection process. You should tell the candidate what’s unique about your culture in order to help that person decide if your organization is a good fit for them. I once had a candidate ask a very astute question: “What is the single most important thing I should do to be successful in your company?” What a great question. I replied, “Make lots of friends,” because my company’s culture is very social and relationship oriented. It’s almost impossible to thrive if you don’t intentionally cultivate close relationships.

And by the way, your recruitment and selection process is itself an important expression of your culture. Viewed through that lens, is there something you should change?

After you’ve hired the candidate, next comes orientation. During your orientation process you should discuss your beliefs, values and expected behaviors. But please don’t give a litany of boring statements. Make the statements come alive with memorable stories. For instance, suppose a cultural expectation is, “Go the extra mile.” Tell a story to vividly make your point. I hope every reader can tell a legendary story illustrating that point.

Let’s expand on the importance of stories as a way to help people learn what’s valued in your culture. You should continuously build and add to your archive of stories that celebrate the different elements of your culture. Institutionalize the practice of disseminating these stories throughout your company. I believe that this kind of storytelling is THE single most powerful method of teaching and sustaining your culture.

In my final remarks I wish to point out that every human being is an unconscious cultural anthropologist. New employees learn the most about your culture through daily observation. Every single day they learn more about what gets celebrated and rewarded, what gets punished, and what gets ignored. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how people really learn the most about your culture.

Take a brutally honest look at your formal and informal reward and punishment practices. To what degree are they aligned with your stated beliefs, values and desired behaviors? You might need to change some practices to achieve better alignment, or you might wish to change some of the statements to more honestly tell it like it is. It’s not at all helpful to a new employee to mislead them about what your culture really is. And it doesn’t work. You can’t fool a good anthropologist.

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

Larry Sternberg

Are You Surrounding Yourself With The Right People? – 2

One of my mentors, Sigi Brauer, frequently said, “Surround yourself with people who will make you successful.” You need to think beyond whether a candidate has the potential to excel in their role, you need to think about who’s the best fit for the culture, and who’s the best fit for you? In this post, I’ll focus on the latter: “How do you know who’s the best fit for you?”

First, you have to be aware of your leadership style. How would you describe it? See if you can write it down. It might be more difficult than you think. Go to associates you trust. Ask them to describe your style, and to describe the ideal direct report for you. Remember, there’s often a difference between whom you want and whom you really need.

Next, think about current and former direct reports who were (or are) a great fit for you. What are the first things that come to mind? What were they like? Why did they add so much value? Why did you look forward to working with them?

When you’ve done all this, see what themes emerge from these diverse perspectives. What did you learn? Have you refined your understanding of your style, and of your ideal direct report?

To make this more concrete, here are some random examples of possible insights. Do you want a person who constantly challenges the status quo? One who wants to execute established processes with excellence? Do you want a person who is highly collaborative? Intensely competitive? Relationship oriented? Thick skinned? Humble? Comfortable with confrontation?

If your style is aggressive and confrontational, the ideal direct report should be comfortable with confrontation and have a thick skin. If organization and attention to detail is not your long suit, seek someone who is strong in those areas.

During employment interviews, ask candidates to describe their style and their strengths. How close is the match to what you seek? Ask them to describe the best boss they’ve ever had. To what degree are they describing you?

You can also use scientific assessments to improve your ability to predict the degree to which a candidate matches your ideal fit.

As you think more about this, I believe you’ll come to the conclusion that your ideal direct reports will share certain values and character traits, AND will bring strengths that are complimentary to yours.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Improve A Relationship When Trust Is Low?

A client recently asked me this question. As usual, I don’t think I have the answer, but I do have some thoughts.

Let’s think about a hypothetical situation that, sadly, is all too common. Suppose you have to work with someone you believe (perhaps for very good reasons) intentionally does things to undermine you. Trust is low. In the normal course of business, he calls a meeting and doesn’t include you even though you clearly should have been invited. Before reading further, take a moment to answer the following questions: How does that make you feel? What do you do?

Now, let’s alter that hypothetical slightly. Suppose a close friend at work calls a meeting and doesn’t include you even though you clearly should have been invited. How does that make you feel? What do you do?

There’s a good chance that your answers for the first hypothetical were very different than your answers for the second one.

In the first hypothetical, you might be upset or even angry. Depending on your style, you might confront that person in an adversarial manner. Or you might not discuss it directly with this person but instead discuss it with others, as more evidence that this person is trying to undermine you. Neither response is constructive.

In the second hypothetical you might well be somewhat upset, but your response wouldn’t be adversarial, and you certainly wouldn’t badmouth your close friend. You’d be more likely to have a non-confrontational conversation about why you weren’t invited, and you’d readily believe it was an oversight. Your response would be constructive.

Our interpretation of someone’s behavior depends on our relationship with that person. When trust is low we automatically attribute bad motives, but when trust is high we refuse to believe that bad motives account for the behavior.

So here’s what you can do to improve a relationship when trust is low.

First, recognize that your feelings do not have to dictate your behavior, and ask yourself, “Suppose the person who did this (whatever “this” is) were my best friend. How would I respond? What would I do?” CHOOSE THAT BEHAVIOR, no matter what you feel like doing. In the case of being excluded from a meeting, for instance, start with the assumption it was an oversight (even if you don’t believe it!) and choose your behavior based on that assumption.

Second, remember that your assumptions about a person’s motives might be mistaken. It’s almost always constructive to ask why… if you ask the way you’d ask your close friend.

I’m not suggesting that this strategy is easy to implement. On the contrary, repairing relationships is really difficult, but it can be done. It involves risk, it takes time, and it almost always requires you to be the bigger person.

My friend Carol Ott Schacht sums up this strategy quite eloquently: “Love ‘em to goodness.”

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Find The Growth Opportunities During Tough Times?

Nobody looks forward to tough times. But let’s face it. Tough times are inevitable. They’re part of life’s journey. They cause a range of negative emotions and behaviors, including frustration, anger, blaming, finger pointing, and despair – just to name a few. But it’s during tough times that people most need great leadership. And like any life experience, they present growth opportunities for everyone involved. By no means do I think I have the best wisdom on this topic. But I do have some thoughts.

My first thought is something my friend Doug Rath says frequently, “This too will pass.” Great leaders, I think, know this. They know that hanging in there is a necessary strategy. Sometimes a situation calls for unglamorously soldiering on.

But how do you get people to soldier on? Most fundamentally, you must give them hope. Hope is the antidote to despair. And the belief that we can make things better, that we will make things better is a powerful motivator. In my opinion, it’s not about getting people to believe in you, it’s about getting them to believe in themselves.

Discuss your organization’s mission and remind people how your organization is making a difference in the world. Make it eminently clear that you will never give up on the mission and you will never give up on them. Give very clear direction about what the priorities are, what your plan is, and what each person’s role is in executing the plan.

Understand that success is highly motivational, and that even during tough times people are achieving successes. But they often don’t even notice their successes due to the overall situation. Don’t let people focus only on what’s going wrong. Some things are going right. Be intentional about calling out successes. Start every meeting by asking each person to name a recent success. This injects perspective and positivity into the situation.

The next point is most meaningful to me, personally. Use this situation to deepen relationships, including mutual support and loyalty. People who go through tough times together often form a deep and lasting bond. Your organization has the opportunity to become stronger due to this situation. You must nurture this outcome intentionally.

During tough times, people can become crabby and harsh with each other. Finger pointing and blaming can increase. Use your power to disallow this kind of behavior. Deliver this message (in your own words), “We’re better than this!” State your expectation that people choose mutually supportive behaviors. And, of course, you must model this behavior yourself. You all have the opportunity to grow as people.

This final point I learned from Dr. William E. Hall. During difficult, challenging times, talents emerge that would otherwise remain dormant. Be alert to spot these emerging talents. Once that good genie comes out of the box, find ways to use it. Find ways to celebrate these talents and nurture them into the future.

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

Larry Sternberg