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

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

Are Your Customers Interrupting You?

Don’t you think the title question is ludicrous? Our purpose is to serve customers, right? When we start thinking they’re interruptions, we’ve become misguided. But what about employees who interrupt us? Do we treat them the same way we would treat customers?

Many leaders say that employees are their internal customers, but in too many cases that’s just empty language. When a direct report “interrupts” you, do you respond in the same way as if a customer asks for your attention? Do you stop what you’re doing (e.g., reviewing your numbers, writing an email) and give that person a warm welcome? Do you, by your actions, convey that he or she is more important than whatever you were working on?

Of course there are exceptions, such as when you’re dealing with an emergency. But let’s not focus on the exceptions. The basic issue here is whether you treat employees like valued customers. Be brutally honest with yourself. When an employee asks for your attention, do you really demonstrate the same sense of urgency to understand what that person needs and then act to fulfill that need? Whether you do this or not, you’re sending a message about how important that employee is to you.

What message do you want to send?

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

Larry Sternberg

How Can The Eisenhower Decision Matrix Help You Reduce Time Stress?

Time management is getting more and more difficult, because attention management is getting more  difficult, because more things  demand our attention, which eats up our time. The principles and practices of effective time management are well known, but people still seem to suffer from stress related to not having enough time. The purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower  classified tasks into four categories, which are often represented by a four box matrix:

1. Urgent and important                                                                    2. Not urgent, but important

3. Urgent, but not important                                                             4. Not urgent or important

I’m terrible with formatting, so please forgive the poor visual above. I couldn’t figure out how to do boxes. Imagine each numbered item is in a box and we can proceed.

Many readers will have seen this before. It’s easy to get stuck in quadrants 1 & 3. How often to you find yourself in these quadrants? They can suck up almost all your attention and time, leaving precious little time for items in quadrant 2. Quadrant 2 is the tough one. The well known solution is to proactively schedule time for items in quadrant two. Don’t just have a generalized intention to devote time to these things. Put them on your calendar. Do it every week.

Effective use of this matrix requires you to clearly articulate your values. Otherwise, how can you decide what’s important? Notice that the act of articulating your values is a quadrant 2 item 🙂 Ideally, you should set goals only after you’ve articulate your values.

In setting goals, your time horizon plays a major role in determining what quadrant a particular activity falls into. If you only set goals for this quarter, you’ll make certain decisions about what to work on this week. If you set goals for 10 years from now you’ll probably make different decisions about what to work on this week.

The effective use of the Eisenhower matrix requires that you articulate your values, set goals based on those values, and schedule time for quadrant 2 activities. The more distant your time horizon, the better decisions you’ll make.

You must accept the fact that in these times you cannot get everything done. You just can’t. But you can reduce the time stress by knowing that the things you spent time on were more important than the other things vying for your attention. I think that’s the best any of us can do.

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

Larry Sternberg


Who Should Have 51% Of The Vote?

The question in the title of this post can be expressed as follows: Who should make what decisions? We see this question constantly in government. For instance, all disputes about states rights vs. federal rights fall into this category. In business, all questions about empowerment fall into this category. What decisions are people in role x empowered to make? I love this question. To see one of my previous posts about empowerment, click here.

In this post I want to discuss the title question from a different perspective: effective collaboration. In today’s world effective collaboration is essential. Lack of clarity about who gets to decide what has detrimental effects on collaboration. Disputes about this question slow down progress, damage relationships and undermine the group’s ability to achieve excellence. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen.

In many cases a group can find clarity on its own. Sometimes an informal leader emerges organically because group members appreciate this person’s leadership. This leader helps the group reach consensus about decisions, which maintains forward momentum. That’s one possibility.

Also, groups can understand that not all decisions have to be made by the entire group. The group can “deputize” a person to make certain decisions on behalf of the group. The group is saying, “We trust you. We have confidence in you.” For instance, suppose a project requires a Web page. Instead of having every aspect of the Web page approved by the group (consensus approach), the group can deputize one person to make decisions about the look and feel, and another person to be in charge of how the site will function. A third person can be deputized to write copy, and so on. The other group members can critique prototypes and drafts, but at the end of the day the deputized individuals have 51% of the vote in their areas. Forward momentum is maintained.

This deputizing strategy is underutilized, by the way, because it requires people to relinquish control.

There will be situations where individuals in the group are competing for control. They cannot agree about certain decisions, and they are making mutually exclusive claims for 51% of the vote about those decisions. When they cannot resolve these issues internally, progress will stop and relationships will be damaged. In this case, a leader external to the group must step in to do what the group cannot do for itself: decide who gets 51% of the vote about what decisions. Individuals in the group will then be able to focus their energies on achieving the mission rather than fighting about who can decide what.

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

Larry Sternberg

Expense Or Investment? How Do You See Your Employees?

Recently Rick Newman wrote a very interesting article entitled, “Why most employers aren’t like Starbucks or Costco”. To read it click here. Newman states that employers who view their employees as expenses typically compete on cost (e.g., Walmart) whereas most companies who view their employees as investments typically compete on quality (e.g., Starbucks).

He points out that many companies whose business model is premised on keeping labor costs low could actually afford to pay people more, but doing so would risk the ire of investors and Wall Street analysts — despite the fact that numerous studies have established that the investment approach can pay for itself. There are lots of way to make money. I prefer to work with companies that take the investment approach, so in this post I want to address the how. How do you make the investment approach pay for itself?

Properly implemented the investment approach — which includes a focus on the quality of products and services — delivers several important outcomes:

  • Increased repeat business
  • Increased per transaction spend
  • Improved word-of-mouth
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover

As Newman points out, this approach begins with the recruitment of highly talented employees, which requires a sophisticated selection process. Conduct a proper study to understand the profile of top performers in the organization. These are employees who not only perform their tasks with excellence, but also they thrive in your unique culture. Then, recruit and select to this profile. In any job, top performers are way more productive than others, they make fewer errors (reducing costly re-work), and they miss fewer days of work. If you select highly talented people who fit your culture, you can have fewer employees, each making more — and your overall labor costs go down while quality goes up.

In addition, if you also select highly talented supervisors, your employee turnover will go down which not only saves the money associated with turnover (a VERY large number), but also improves your quality because a) more of your new hire training budget can be re-purposed, and b) employees who stay experience more practice, which helps them improve performance. Cost go down, quality goes up.

So how do you make the investment approach pay for itself? Select highly talent employees who fit your culture, pay them well, invest in training and development, and give each employee a supervisor who truly cares, who cultivates close, positive relationships. You’ll earn a handsome return on these investments.

But I have to be honest with you. I do care about the business case, but that’s not why I take the investment approach. I want it for its own sake. I want the employees in my culture to have no doubt that they are our most important competitive advantage, that I care deeply about each and every person who works with me, that I take great joy in facilitating both their professional and personal development, and that I will extend myself to meet their needs. A business case has no soul.

Thanks to my wife, Salli Sternberg, for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg

Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?

Jane Williams, Editor, Knowledge Arabia, recently wrote an article entitled, “Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?”  That article was based on the following research paper: Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. “The too-much-talent effect: Team interdependence determines when more talent is too much versus not enough.”

The abstract of their paper states:

“Five studies examined the relationship between talent and team performance. Two survey studies found that people believe there is a linear and nearly monotonic relationship between talent and performance: participants expected that more talent increases performance and that this relationship would never turn negative. However, building off research on status conflicts, we predicted that talent facilitates performance… but only up to a point, after which the benefits of more talent will decrease and eventually turn negative as intra-team coordination suffers. We also predicted that the level of task interdependence would be a key determinant of when more talent would be detrimental versus beneficial. Three archival studies revealed that the too-much-talent effect only emerged when in tasks where team members were interdependent  (football and basketball) but not independent (baseball). Our basketball analysis established the mediating role of team coordination. When teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart.” To download a PDF of the study click here.

Most teams in non-sports organizations require high degrees of interdependence, so that’s my focus for this post. As the authors acknowledge, we’re dealing with the age-old dilemma of competition for individual status versus cooperating in service of team success. The authors of the study firmly establish that too much internal competition for dominance and status will undermine team performance. But they don’t address the fact that this behavior is not remotely confined to high talent individuals. I’m sure every reader of this post has witnessed the detrimental effect of mediocre performers striving for status by undermining colleagues and associates. Sadly, this behavior is commonplace.

So I think the most important finding from their research is this: the desire and ability to work with others in service of team success is a key factor in team performance, no matter the level of individual talent. It’s not the intensity of the talent, it’s the desire and ability to value team success over individual status.

I’d like to bring into this conversation a book by Warren Bennis: “Organizing Genius, The Secrets of Creative Collaboration”. In this book Bennis studied seven non-sports groups that achieved extraordinary results. He calls them “Great Groups”. Each of these seven groups was a team comprised of greatly gifted people who managed to cooperate and collaborate rather than to compete for status. So we know it can be done. Here are a few quotations from Bennis:

Leaders of Great Groups are recruiters who have a “keen eye for talent”.
“Recruiting the right genius for the job is the first step in building many great collaborations.”
“Such recruiters look for two things: excellence and the ability to work with others.”

In today’s world, interdependence is not optional. If you want a high performance team, each team member must have more than the ability to perform individual tasks with excellence. The ability to collaborate synergistically should not be in the “nice to have” category. It should be a ticket to admission. As Bennis has established, you can have high talent and a great ability to work with others. Let’s find more people like that.

Thanks to Chantel Taylor for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I value your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Determine What’s Right For Your Culture?

Recently, a group of leaders in our company initiated a discussion on the following topic: How can we honor our strength-based, individualized philosophy while maintaining accountability? I love dialogue of this sort. It keeps the culture vibrant, and it presents a growth opportunity for all participants. This post is an example of a live dialogue about what’s right for a particular culture.

Our company culture is rooted in positive psychology. We place high value on these overlapping principles:

  • We focus most of our attention on what’s right about each person, rather than what’s wrong with them.
  • We treat each person differently, according to his or her unique configuration of needs, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, rather than treating each person the same.
  • We help people grow by investing in each person’s strengths, rather than by investing in efforts to fix weaknesses.
  • We establish expectations that align with each person’s natural behaviors, rather than trying to install behaviors he or she doesn’t have in their repertoire.
  • We manage through relationship rather than through rules and policies. Leaders are required to use their judgement in making decisions that are right for each unique situation.

If you wish to hold someone accountable you must start with clear expectations and goals. Some expectations address behaviors and attitudes (e.g., be a great team player; have a positive attitude), which are generally difficult to measure objectively. In these cases, frequent, candid feedback from the leader must substitute for objective scores. The use of judgement is necessary here.

Some expectations address easily measurable outcomes (e.g., games won, sales revenue or customer satisfaction scores). Guess what? You have to decide where the goals should be set, which requires judgement.

If a person is not achieving his or her goals, what then? In our culture the leader’s job is to help employees succeed. In our culture the leader must do his or her best to coach the employee about how to use their strengths to meet the expectations and achieve the stated goals. They must avoid “one-size-fit-all” coaching recommendations. Furthermore,they must state what the consequences are if the goal is not achieved.

The use of judgement cannot be avoided. What is the root cause of the failure? Were the goals set too high? How much time should we give the person before we give up? Are there different consequences if they a) just barely missed the goal, or b) missed it by a mile? How does this most recent performance look in light of historic performance? Is there way to job sculpt or re-cast?

A strength-based, individualized culture embraces clearly defined expectations and goals, which should be individualized. So two people in the same role might well have different goals. Leaders are accountable to help people succeed by using their individual strengths. Our culture also embraces accountability when people are not meeting expectations, and the nature of the consequences should be individualized to the person and the situation. This approach is the opposite of one-size-fits all. It’s messier, it’s more challenging, and it requires superior judgement at every step.

I’m sharing this internal discussion in my blog for two reasons. First, I believe this discussion is healthy. Any organization’s culture is strengthened by conversations of this sort, and I wanted to give a specific example. Second, I don’t think issues about accountability are unique to our company, so I hope any reader can benefit from this discussion, even though their culture is different.

Thanks to the group of leaders who initiated this conversation. I’m looking forward to more dialogue.

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

Larry Sternberg

Will More Oversight Really Improve Your Organization?

By “oversight” I mean rules or policies requiring that certain decisions and actions must be pre-approved. Too much oversight creates a bureaucracy that brings about numerous undesirable outcomes. But I think we can also agree that some degree of governance is necessary to enable an organization to effectively serve its various stakeholder groups. So how much is too much? Where’s the “Goldilocks zone” with respect to oversight?

I think oversight rules and policies arise out of: 1) a desire for control, and/or 2) a desire to ensure fairness and just treatment.

Some oversight rules arise because companies must decide how to allocate limited resources. If I wish to attend a conference in my discipline someone must approve the funds. If I wish to pursue a project, someone must approve the company resources necessary to execute the project. Oversight policies in these cases arise out of a desire for fairness and just treatment. Employees understand that resources are finite. In all cases, transparency and consistency about how these decisions are made contributes to a healthy culture.

Some oversight rules, however, arise out of a desire for control. I want to control the decision because I don’t trust someone else’s judgement on these issues, or I believe they might commitment malfeasance. So oversight is required. For instance, suppose a proposal goes out with a serious error, offering a set of services to a customer for the wrong price, a price that’s way too low. The boss reacts by creating a rule that all proposals must now be approved by her in order to avoid repeating that error. The additional oversight has created a bottle neck which makes the organization less agile, and sends a message to the employees that they’re not trusted.

Too often, in response to something that has gone wrong ONCE, management creates a new oversight policy to ensure that error does not recur. Oversight requires time and resources. It slows things down and often damages morale. It erodes trust in the culture. The new rule can easily cost the organization more than the error did. Over time, a lot of oversight rules can be created out of a desire for more control.

Before you adopt a new oversight rule, take a hard look at why. Take a hard look at the downside of this solution. Furthermore, be skeptical about any oversight process that requires more than two approvals. Do the additional approvals really add any value?

When it comes to additional oversight, the cure is often worse than the disease.

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

Larry Sternberg