Why Should Employees Have To Pay Their Dues?

“Before he can become a [insert desired role here] he has to pay his dues, just like I did.” Have you heard this point of view? I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s high time to evolve our thinking, to leave this point of view behind.

The phraseology indicates that the dues-paying activities are a sort of penance — nothing more than a cost to the employee of pursuing a particular career goal. If a person isn’t willing to go through this experience they’re not worthy. They don’t want it enough. This reminds me of fraternity initiations.

Many valuable activities are unpleasant. When I was a law student, during class a professor would call on a student, who would stand to answer the professor’s questions. Trust me when I tell you this was no fun at all. It was a withering cross-examination. And I couldn’t see how it contributed to our learning. But it was universally accepted as a right of passage. So one day I asked Professor Gordon why he was doing this. He replied that judges would do this and worse in court, and our professors had three years to get us accustomed to performing with excellence when being treated this way in public.

That explanation made a lot of sense to me. There was a point to the activity. It wasn’t just a right of passage. We weren’t just learning the law; we were learning to be lawyers.

In many cases, a leader wants someone to pay their dues simply because the leader had to do that earlier in his career. That’s a terrible reason. If that’s your justification, break the cycle. Stop it.

If you’re requiring employees to pay their dues before progressing in their careers, I encourage you to answer the question, “Why is this a valuable investment of their time?” And please give a better answer than, “It builds character.” Life is full of character-building experiences. Nobody needs you to manufacture additional ones.

I’d like to distinguish mere “dues paying” activities from starting at the bottom and working one’s way up. Starting at the bottom can deliver great value in terms of learning, empathy and perspective. So I’m very much in favor of making people start at the bottom – if it’s for the right reasons.

If a required assignment is just a right of passage, get rid of it. Find a more valuable way to invest that person’s time. Let’s quit making people pay their dues.

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

Larry Sternberg

11 Surefire Ways To Prevent Learning And Growth

Lately I’m seeing a lot of talk about the importance of developing future leaders. But I’m also seeing a disconnect between what people say and how they behave in the workplace. This post expresses my perspective on this disconnect. Here’s how to prevent learning and growth.

Please note that these items are not in order of importance. They’re merely in the order they occurred to me.

  1. Allow your employees to stay inside their comfort zone. Don’t let them advance too rapidly. Avoid giving them new responsibilities until you’re absolutely sure they will not fail. Go slowly.
  2. Stay inside your own comfort zone. Don’t set goals that require too much stretch. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
  3. Don’t empower employees to exercise initiative to solve a problem or improve your operation. Make sure they have to seek your permission first. You need to know what’s going on, after all. And your judgment is better than theirs.
  4. Make sure things are being done your way. Life is easier that way. If you do let people try things, make it risky for them. Make sure they know that they’ll be held accountable if those new things don’t work out.
  5. Discourage them from challenging the status quo or disagreeing with the opinions of the organization’s leaders (most particularly you). Expressing contrary opinions confuses other employees and undermines alignment.
  6. Don’t involve subordinates in making important decisions. Making those decisions is your job. Involving them just slows things down. Either you’ll have to spend time discussing ill-advised ideas, or even worse, their ideas might be better than yours, in which case why do they need you? Better not to involve them.
  7. Focus on what’s wrong with people rather than what’s right. Everyone has things they should work on. Make people work on their weaknesses. Make sure your coaching focuses on what they’re doing wrong. People need to accept constructive criticism.
  8. Invest most of your coaching time working with your worst performers. Everyone knows that a team is only as strong as its weakest players.
  9. If someone is doing an excellent job, discourage them from seeking a transfer or promotion. You could lose an excellent player, and you’d have to train someone new. It’s best for the business to keep them in that position. And it’s certainly easier for you.
  10. Make sure people know they’re accountable for their own growth and development. Advocate for a “self-development” culture, which relieves you of that responsibility, thus freeing you up to focus on more important aspects of your job.
  11. Make sure people know that if they don’t have a solution, asking for your help does not reflect well on them. You need people who bring you solutions, not problems, right?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you’re on the receiving end of these kinds of practices, I’d love to hear how they’ve affected you.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Know What Advice To Take?

This morning I’m thinking about harmony. Not harmony among different people, but the degree of harmony among the statements, decisions and actions of one person. For me, this goes beyond mere consistency, but as always I’m not interested in semantic disputes, so I’ll get to the substance of the topic.

When a leader makes a decision or takes some action, that action is perceived by others against the background of everything else they’ve seen the leader do. And people’s reactions to that behavior are influenced by how well it harmonizes with that background.

For example, years ago we were (appropriately!) excited about the book, “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters. Based on observations of successful managers, Peters described a practice known as “management by walking around”. Many managers changed their behavior by adopting this practice. For some, it harmonized with their management style and really improved their effectiveness. For others, however, it did not harmonize with their character or style. Their visits to people’s work spaces made people uncomfortable and confused.

As part of our quest to grow and improve, we seek advice from a variety of sources, including mentors, teachers, coaches and experts. It’s important to distinguish between two types of advice: 1) individualized advice, and 2) generic, one-size-fits-all advice.

If a coach or mentor has invested the time to get to know you, he or she is much more likely to make recommendations suited to your character and your natural proclivities. Their advice might push you outside your comfort zone, but it will harmonize with your style. Their individualized recommendations make sense for you, but might not make sense for someone else.

You must be more thoughtful about generic advice, such as the advice in this blog. You must decide whether it’s suitable for you. In some cases the answer might be readily apparent. But there will be some cases where the answer is not clear. In those cases I recommend you experiment. You’re in your leadership laboratory every day. If a piece of advice makes sense to you, give it a try. If it works for you keep doing it, and reflect on what you’ve learned. If it doesn’t work for you, quit doing it and reflect on what you’ve learned.

A final thought. One common way we grow involves identifying role models, and doing our best to emulate their behavior. It’s likely you have someone in your life you look up to. You observe their behaviors and you say to yourself, “That’s how a successful person acts, so that’s what I’ll do.” I hope you continue that approach, but don’t mindlessly assume that everything that works for them will work for you. Ask yourself whether a particular behavior harmonizes with your individual style. If you’re not sure, give it a try. Whether it works for you or not, you’re sure to grow.

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

Larry Sternberg

Are You Creating Problems?

If you’re a great leader the answer is, “Yes!” The right kinds of problems provide opportunities for growth. Consider these two quotations:

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Dr. Martin Luther King

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Albert Einstein

The invention of antibiotics creates super bugs. Adopting democracy as a form of government creates new problems. The invention of the Internet and mobile devices has created new problems. At the time of this writing, the widespread availability of sophisticated drones is creating a new set of problems. I’m sure you can cite several additional examples.

If you’re leading with excellence, you’re articulating a clear vision for the future and you’re laying out a plan to get there. You might well anticipate some problems and create strategies to deal with them. But progress is precarious because it always gives birth to unexpected consequences. The immense complexity of the world prevents you from anticipating all the new problems you’ll face.

So if you’re making progress, you’re creating new problems, which require new solutions, which create new problems. This is a relentless cycle. My friend Mark Epp includes the following phrase in his email signature: “Success and beyond…” What’s beyond is continuous learning and growth, generated by the “new solution, new problem” cycle. Let’s embrace it joyfully.

Thanks to my wife, Salli, for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg