When Is Kicking Butt A Good Idea?

Kicking butt is a widespread leadership practice that has stood the test of time. I think it’s a valuable tool to have in your repertoire, and like any tool you have to know how and when to use it. So kicking butt is a good idea – sometimes. As usual, I don’t think I have the definitive point of view about this, so I hope you share your thoughts.

First, let’s acknowledge that some people are natural butt-kickers, and some are not. It’s easy to know whether this comes naturally to you. You’ve been in a leadership role for a while, you’ve done it, it felt like the right thing to do, and it worked. If you’re very comfortable with this technique and you have no doubt you’ll use it again, then this post is for you.

If kicking butt is not a natural part of your leadership style, that’s okay. I advise you against trying to learn this technique or improve your use of it because there’s some aptitude involved. Focus on using other techniques (those that come naturally to you) to accomplish the same outcomes.

For you natural butt-kickers, let’s assume that your intent is to improve performance. With that worthwhile goal in mind there are two situations in which this tool can be very effective: 1) to punish poor performance after the fact, and 2) to motivate people, to create a sense of urgency.

If a person or team has performed poorly (way short of their capability), they’re disappointed, and they know you’re disappointed. Kicking butt brings this to closure and therefore allows you to move on. It feels appropriate to everyone. Once you’ve done this though, leave it behind. Don’t keep punishing them.

If a person or team is not demonstrating enough urgency kicking butt is also appropriate. This is the most easily identifiable situation in which to use this technique. However, this is not the only motivational technique. Too many leaders overuse it when other techniques might be even more effective.

It’s important to understand what kicking butt can accomplish and what it cannot. It can increase someone’s sense of urgency. It can make them try harder. It can increase their desire to perform better. But it cannot increase a person’s (or a team’s) level of skill or talent. Kicking butt cannot and will not increase their capability to perform better.

If a person or team is truly giving their best, this technique will fail.

It’s also important to understand that when it comes to motivation one size does not fit all. The technique of kicking butt might work well on you and on some people who report to you. But it won’t work for every person on your team. The best leaders are intentional about understanding and responding to the uniquenesses of each person on their team.

In conclusion, kicking butt can be a desirable technique to have in your repertoire. However, make sure you do it only for people who respond to that particular technique, and understand what you can and cannot accomplish by using it.

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

Larry Sternberg

Is It Time For A Compassionate Bus Stop?

Lately I’m hearing the phrase, “Compassionate bus stop.” It’s another euphemism for firing someone. Sacking them. Terminating their employment. Involuntary separation. Many people find the terms “firing” or “sacking” too harsh, so we look for alternatives — which we then have to translate. For instance, “It was time for a compassionate bus stop.” What? Oh, you fired them. Whatever phrase we use, it’s a difficult and often painful transaction. The purpose of this post is to explore answers to two questions: 1) How do you know when it’s time? And 2) How do you do this professionally and compassionately?

I’m aware that in certain cases, such as intentional malfeasance, you might not want to be compassionate. I’m not addressing those types of cases in this post. I’m addressing cases where the reason for termination is failure to perform up to expectations, and you want to be compassionate.

By the way, it takes no leadership talent whatsoever to fire someone. The challenge and the satisfaction are attached to helping people succeed. If you have to fire too many people, perhaps you should question whether leadership is for you.

How do you know when it’s time?

I begin with the stance that when I have to fire someone, it’s my failure as much as it is theirs. After all, I invited them to join us on this bus, and I assigned them a seat. Once they’re on the bus, it’s my responsibility to help them succeed. So it was either a mistake in the hiring decision or I didn’t ensure that they were trained and supervised in a way that helped them succeed. Therefore, it’s my failure as well as theirs.

Also, I always remember that other employees are watching. They correctly assume this is how I’ll treat them if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

For me, it’s not time until I know – in my heart-of-hearts — that I’ve done everything I can to help that person succeed. First, I’ve been bluntly clear that unless their performance improves they’re in danger of losing their job. And I tell them just as clearly, and passionately, that I’m their ally and I’ll do everything in my power to help them succeed. It’s not time until I’ve delivered on that promise, until I’ve put in extra effort and really extended myself.

I also ask the following question: “Is this person in the right seat on the bus?” Maybe a different job would be a better fit for their strengths and interests. Plenty of times in my career, I’ve identified a different and better role for a struggling employee.

Unfortunately, there are situations where my best efforts aren’t good enough. The person’s performance has not improved enough. I haven’t been able to identify another role for them. There is a day when I reluctantly come to the realization that I’ve done everything I can, and additional efforts are unlikely to lead to success. That’s when I know it’s time.

How do you fire someone professionally and compassionately?

Here’s an insight not often discussed. In the vast majority of cases, when an employee is not succeeding he or she knows it long before you do. If you can’t help that person succeed, it is NOT kind and compassionate to leave them in that situation. It will start to diminish their self-esteem. If it goes on long enough, the stress might well cause health problems. Don’t be a party to it. As unpleasant and painful as it might be, have the conversation. Despite the pain, it’s the most caring and compassionate thing to do.

When you have the conversation, don’t chat about the weather or the recent sporting event. Get into it right away. Briefly review the expectations and the shortfall in their performance. Tell them it’s not working out (which they know!) and that it’s time for them to leave. If you’re sorry, say so, but don’t say something you don’t mean.

This might be painful for you, and it might present you with some challenges in your organization, but for the person being fired it’s a life-changing event. In my opinion, compassion is called for. Explain the separation process. Answer their questions. But don’t extend the moment. After your conversation, proceed to the next step.

Remember, this does not have to be the end of your relationship with this person. You can continue to care about them. You can help them in their search for their next job. The best outcome is that they find something soon and go on to have great success. I’ve been fortunate to maintain positive relationships with many people I’ve fired, and I’ve been pleased to continue to support their success as they move forward in their careers.

In summary, when it’s time for an employee to leave, take action, as unpleasant as it might be. Do it with compassion, and own your failure to help them succeed. And don’t forget, you can continue to care about them and support them even though they don’t work for you.

Thanks to my friends Holly Olson and Cydney Koukol for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg

Do You Individualize Your Coaching Practices?

Many leaders used to do the job of the people they’re coaching. And those leaders often were very successful in that job, and they’ve developed the belief that they know THE way to achieve success. Many sales training programs are based on this sort of belief. The limitation of this belief is that trainer or coach is unaware of her own talent. It doesn’t occur to her that others might not be capable of demonstrating the behaviors she’s recommending.

If you’re coaching someone, in any position, remember this: just because you were (or are) capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean that the person you’re coaching possesses those same capabilities. Of course there are some behaviors you can teach. But leaders routinely overestimate their ability to help others demonstrate behaviors that are not aligned with their aptitudes or character traits. Here are some examples. Maybe you’re comfortable with confrontation and he (the coachee) simply is not. Maybe you’re extroverted and he’s introverted. Maybe you have an eye for detail and he simply doesn’t. Or maybe you’re remarkably well organized and he’s not.

Great coaches begin by understanding the individual strengths of each person, and they implement the following principle, which is attributed to Peter Drucker: Build the strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t worry so much about how you did it. Each person creates success by using his or her unique configuration of strengths. As a coach, you must understand that there are many paths to success. If you want to be a great coach, you must grow beyond helping others understand how you achieved success. You must help them figure out how they are going to achieve success.

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

Larry Sternberg

Are You Surrounding Yourself With The Right People?

Too often in my career I’ve seen managers struggle because they don’t surround themselves with the right people. It’s the goal of this post to stimulate your thinking on this topic. Who are the right people?

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice, “You shouldn’t hire people like yourself.” That sounds like wisdom at a cocktail party, but it’s so oversimplified it’s of no use. Don’t listen to it. You should hire people who are like you in certain ways.

We’re talking about the issue of fit. Direct reports who are the best natural fit for you will definitely be like you in certain ways. One of my clients, a hotel general manager, had an intense drive for continuous improvement. He was never satisfied. If his direct reports didn’t share this drive, they were not a good fit for his style.

Difficulties arise when managers mistakenly look for things that shouldn’t matter. Is the person an enthusiastic sports fan? Are they in my generation? Are they a morning person? Were they in a sorority? In most cases, you should be completely unconcerned whether someone is like you in these respects.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about who’s right for you.

  • What kind of person thrives under your unique leadership style?
  • What weaknesses/deficiencies can you just not tolerate?
  • How will this person fit with your team?
  • Is this someone you’re willing to trust?
  • Would you look forward to working with this person every day?
  • What strengths do they bring that compliment your strengths?

The last item, complimentary strengths, is the area in which you should very intentionally seek people who are not like you. This is how you produce synergy.

If you can answer the questions listed above, you can determine whether someone is the right person to report to you, and you can quit worrying about the degree to which they’re like you or not like you.

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

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

High Talent Team/Weak Supervisor — What Now?

A client asked one of my associates what a senior leader should do when she finds in her organization a team of highly talented employees being supervised by a weak supervisor. Furthermore, what can the team members do?

Let’s talk about some options available to the senior leader. In all cases, the very first activity for the leader should be root cause analysis. Why is this supervisor so weak? One possibility is that this supervisor was recently promoted to his very first supervisory role. He might have great potential, but he hasn’t been trained or coached properly. He’s making rookie mistakes. So the answer is to provide coaching in real time. The senior leader (or her designee) must be willing to give this supervisor a great deal of access. The supervisor must be able to receive just-in-time coaching about how to handle upcoming situations and to debrief recent situations (whether they went well or not) to extract the lessons learned. The senior leader can also recommend books, blogs, and other learning activities. This is a significant investment of time, but a high talent rookie will grow rapidly, and the organization will enjoy a terrific return on that investment.

Another possibility is that the supervisor in question simply is not a talented supervisor. In this scenario my hypothetical supervisor has been a supervisor long enough to tell whether he has the natural abilities necessary for the role. Low talent supervisors cannot effectively manage high talent employees. Coaching will not yield a return on investment here because the potential for growth doesn’t exist. The coach will be asking the supervisor for behaviors he does not have in his repertoire. In some instances the behaviors suggested by the coach will actually feel unwise to this supervisor. The best option in this scenario is to remove the supervisor. The senior leader should make an effort to understand the talents and strengths of this person and should investigate whether there’s a different role for which this person is better suited. But he must come out of the supervisory role. If the senior leader does not remove him, the talented employees on his team members will leave.

What can the team members do? In the first instance, the talented rookie, they can give the new supervisor a chance. Talented team members can usually spot potential in a new supervisor. They’ll see very quickly that this person cares deeply about them and wants to meet their needs. (These are two characteristics of a highly talented supervisor.) They should help him help them. I’m thankful that a group of executives did this for me in my first assignment as a hotel general manager. Without their generosity of spirit and willingness to help me grow, I would not have succeeded.

In the case of the non-talented supervisor, the team members need to stick together, engage in peer to peer coaching, and mutually support each other. They should remind themselves frequently about the organization’s mission, about the successes they’re having, and about the difference they’re making in their customers’ lives — despite the shortcomings of the supervisor. They must have faith that the senior leader is not deaf, dumb and blind, and they should hang in there.  Because things will change.

One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned is this: Despite the fact that you cannot even imagine how a particular situation might change, it does anyway.

Thanks to my friends Mark Epp and Keith McCleod for independently recommending this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg

Why Invest Time With Top Performers?

A surprising number of leaders believe that the best way to improve organizational performance is to improve the performance of their worst people. So poor performers receive the lion’s share of time and attention. Some modest improvements are gained, but what would happen if that same amount of time and attention were focused on the best performers? The premise of this post is that a leader gets drastically more return on time, effort and money by investing the lion’s share of resources in top performers.

People want to feel significant, valued and cared about. My friend, Ed Eynon, says employees want to know the answer to the following two questions:

Do I matter?
Do you care about me?

When taken for granted employees are vulnerable to being recruited away. So if a leader pays more attention to poor performers than to top performers, she’s making those top performers more likely to seek new opportunities. Does this strike you as wise?

A leader must understand the difference between “room for improvement” versus “potential for improvement”. Poor performers have the most room for improvement, but top performers have the most potential for continued improvement. By investing most of her time developing top performers, a leader reaps the greatest improvements in overall team performance.

The most important investment a leader can make is relationship. Cultivating relationships with top performers takes time. It’s the most powerful way to demonstrate that the answers to Ed Eynon’s questions are, “Absolutely” and “Deeply”. Taking the time to develop close relationships conveys significance and and enables leaders to discover what kinds of investments will be most meaningful to those people. Loyalty is earned and retention improves.

“But Larry,” some leaders say, “That’s great in theory, but in the real world I still have to deal with my poor performers. What do I do about them?” The question is important. Here are my thoughts.

First, understand the root cause of the poor performance. Don’t make assumptions. Dig in. It could be that person has a poor supervisor. If so, see if you can assign the person to another supervisor. It could be lack of knowledge. If so, educate the person. But in many cases the root cause will be lack of talent. The person simply lacks aptitude in an area crucial to success in the job. If so, they’re in the wrong job. You can’t install aptitude.

Consider that poor supervisor. It’s likely that person was promoted to supervisor because he was a star performer in his previous job. For instance, the star sales rep was promoted to sales manager. But his main talent is selling, not supervising. Move him back to a sales rep job. Training will not compensate for lack of aptitude. Don’t throw good resources after bad. True, he might resign. The root cause of this problem is the decision to promote him in the first place. But you owe it to your customers, employees and shareholders to move him out of that position.

However, it’s often the case that you can’t move him out for some reason. Then quit beating your head against the wall, and instead of trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, work on containing the collateral damage his lack of talent is causing all of your stakeholders. In the real world that’s often the best available solution given the constraints of the situation.

But at the end of the day all stakeholder groups will receive the most benefits when you invest most of your time with your top performers.

Thanks to Mark Epp and Jess Worman for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg


What Would Your Organization Be Like If Every Employee Had A Great Supervisor?

Bad supervisors spoil morale, impede productivity, damage quality, and decrease customer satisfaction. There are way too many bad supervisors. And it’s our fault. Why do we keep doing this? How can we stop it?

Too often, entry level employees get promoted to supervisory roles based on performance in their current position. The best hourly technician, the best waiter, the best sales rep — those are the employees I’m talking about. They’re great at their jobs, so we make them supervisors. We’re stuck in the outdated point of view that excellent performance in an entry-level job earns one a promotion to supervisor.

That approach so frequently fails because being an outstanding individual performer (e.g., brilliant salesperson) requires a completely different set of talents than being a sales manager. So we’re using the wrong criteria to select our supervisors. If we switch to better criteria, we’ll select better supervisors. Our results will improve, and our lives will be easier.

So let’s let go of the emphasis on individual performance and let’s start paying attention to natural supervisory behaviors and attitudes. Do you have an employee who…

1.  Demonstrates Initiative? This particular combination of behavior and attitude is fundamental to everything else and should be considered a ticket to admission. This person sees ways to help, to add value and takes action.

2.  Improves Morale? This person not only has a strong positive attitude, but also has a positive impact on others as well. He or she encourages others to maintain positivity and optimism in the face of adversity.

 3.  Helps Other Employees? This employee notices when another team member could use some help and just spontaneously moves in to help them. He or she might do this for you as well.

4.  Teaches Other Employees? This person frequently is seen sharing something they’ve learned and helping others learn things that empower them to do their jobs better. He or she does this just because they like to.

5.  Generates Ideas For Improvement? Great supervisors see ways to make things function more effectively. And they speak up.

6.  Demonstrates Leadership? When something needs to get done, this employee just asks others to pitch in — and they do. For instance, “C’mon guys, let’s clean up this area.”

Although this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a heckofalot better than thinking about who’s the best in their current role. In fact, this person might well NOT be the best at their job. He or she might be just okay as a waiter or sales associate. But if you see these attitudes and behaviors, if you see an employee who’s doing this without being asked … that’s the person you should promote to supervisor.

How much easier would your life be if you selected better supervisors?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

You’re a Newly Appointed Supervisor … what the heck do you do now?

A client recently asked for tips she could pass along to a couple of newly appointed supervisors about how to handle a common challenge: dealing with employees who had more seniority and perhaps thought they should have been promoted into the position. If you haven’t encountered this particular challenge, you will. Here are some “don’ts” and “do’s”.

Don’t say you won’t change anything. If you’re a good supervisor, you’ll want to improve things, which requires change.

Don’t be apologetic in giving direction. For example, “I’m sorry guys, but it’s my responsibility to …”

Do act with confidence. Give direction in a matter of fact way. Make it clear through your conversational tone of voice and your relaxed demeanor that you expect people to follow your lead.

Don’t act like you have something to prove.

Do seek to understand each person’s unique needs. To see a set of questions that will help you discover individual needs, click here. Conduct individual discussions within the first two weeks.

Do conduct a Career Investment Discussion with each direct report within the first month. Remember, you must act on this information.

Do show them you respect and honor their knowledge, experience and capabilities. Demonstrate this respect by asking individuals for their opinion and for their help on specific projects or tasks. Make it clear that you are thankful to have them on the team.

Do have an open door, which demonstrates powerfully to each person that they are significant to you. Remember the advice of Stephen Covey, Sr.: You can be effective with people, but you can’t be efficient. Give each person the time they need.

Do have the intent to be their ally rather than their judge. Work actively to help them succeed and to realize their aspirations. As my colleague Jim Meehan says, enliven the following principle: “I mean you no harm, I seek your greatest good.” Put the well-being of your people ahead of your self-interest.

When you encounter undesired attitudes and behaviors, first seek to understand the “why”. Your assumption that you know the “why” without asking is usually mistaken.

Know that good leaders make things better. If you lead with excellence, over time even the doubters will recognize (sometimes begrudgingly) that they are better off.

Thanks for reading. I’m interested to hear your thoughts and your tips for new supervisors.

Larry Sternberg