• Showing up for your team

    At some point in your professional career, your team will go through a challenging period. It’s natural for there to be ups and downs at work, as there are in life. Through some of my own mistakes and trial and error I’ve come to believe there are certain principles that resonate with teams when addressing challenges, regardless of the cause.

    1. Address the issue head on. Never shy away from a problem. If you see it, your team sees it. If you proactively address it, it will be better received than if your team has to raise it with you. Never put on an overly positive air or insinuate the situation is better than it is. Pretending it’s all good, if you don’t feel that way, is sure to be poorly received. People pick up on inauthenticity and it reduces trust in you and raises questions about your judgement.
    2. Be as transparent as possible. The more information you can share about the situation the better. Calibrate what you share based on the maturity of the team, and in some cases, limit information to respect people’s privacy. For example, if I’m speaking about financial performance with a more junior team, I will likely use higher level references and go into less detail than I might with a senior executive team. But generally, the more you can share the better. It contributes to the team’s professional development and breeds trust.
    3. Share how you’re feeling and discuss the plan. It’s ok to be vulnerable, even if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Vulnerability based trust is powerful. And if you’re feeling that way, the team has probably already picked up on it. But make sure to pair those feelings with a clear sense of direction and ideally an action plan. Hearing your leader say “I’m really, really stressed about the timeline for our new plant opening and I’m worried we might be delayed” is scary if that’s the end of the message. Hearing, “I’m really, really stressed about the timeline for our new plant opening and I’m worried we might be delayed. I’ve put in an order with two alternative suppliers for the key part we need and have reached out to our facilities in Mexico as an alternative backup. I should have more information next week on where we are” is better.

    Every leader will be put in the position of managing through a challenging time with their team. How you do so and communicate will leave a lasting impression. More so than how you navigate the good times.

  • Promotions (1/2)

    Promotion decisions often receive far too little consideration given how critical they are to the culture of an organization. I strongly believe promotions are the single biggest culturally re-enforcing action you can take. Much more so than anything you say, the action of promoting someone tells the organization, “this person exemplifies the behaviors that we as an organization respect and celebrate.” Promotions send a message to the organization that says: this person is a role model of our culture (even if it’s not the culture you want!). The more senior the promotion, the truer this is; promoting someone to VP sends a much stronger cultural message than promoting someone to Team Lead, and accordingly, the consequences are higher (i.e., if you make a mistake promoting someone as a first-time manager, it will be far less culturally damaging than mistakenly promoting someone to VP).

    Despite their importance, promotions regularly happen for the wrong reasons. Here is a list of bad reasons to promote someone, which can be all too tempting:

    • Retention. There’s someone on the team who’s great. But you don’t think they are bought in. You’ve heard they are looking for roles elsewhere. To try and retain them, you give them a promotion. By itself, a promotion alone is unlikely to solve a lack of engagement, nor should it be the driving factor for why you promote someone.
    • Compensation. You promote someone to push them into a higher salary band so that you can pay them more. Mission accomplished in getting them additional pay; however, if they aren’t a good fit for the new role they’ve been promoted into, that is all the organization will see and experience.
    • Tenure. They’ve been doing the job for a long time, and they want demonstrated career growth. So you promote them. If they aren’t capable and deserving of that promotion, it will be obvious to the organization.
    • Because you promised it to them. This is probably the most damaging of all. If you commit a promotion to someone based on a timeline, to satisfy that individual’s desire, you are putting yourself in a very difficult situation. Promotions need to be earned, not given. When given, the team will know.
    • Because you have no one else. I have a lot of empathy for this one. Sometimes you have a missing role you desperately need filled, which can make it tempting to prematurely promote someone into a position. Unfortunately, this can have the unintended consequence of setting them up for failure.

    Promotions should exclusively be awarded to individuals who are high or top performers in their current role, are eager to progress their career and take on an additional or new scope of responsibilities, and are a role model for your company’s core values. When done well, promotions can be hugely rewarding to your team and positively enhance overall culture.

    A major watch out for more junior leaders is making poor promotion decisions. It can be really hard to deny a promotion to someone who isn’t deserving of one but believes strongly they are. That’s why, for the sake of the broader culture, it’s important at an organizational level to ensure these are treated as critical decisions.

    *This doesn’t quite account for firms that operate on an “up or out” promotion framework (e.g., certain investment/consulting/banking firms) but the principles generally still apply.

  • Meet the organization where it’s at

    One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, through some bumpy lived experiences over the past 5+ years, is that you have to meet the organization where it’s at. When you know something isn’t working well, or you see a significant opportunity to improve upon something, it’s tempting to start by visualizing the dream/end state. Having a clear vision as to how you want to evolve a process, develop an employee, or accomplish a program of work can be extremely valuable and help set you on the path to achieving it; however, there is one major watch out. If your current reality is wildly different or has little resemblance to your ideal end state, you must respect your starting point and calibrate the path forward accordingly.

    Far too often, we try to jump from current to end state, and then wonder why the end state doesn’t result in the desired outcomes we hoped for. One of the clearest examples of this, and an important lesson learned, came from our own failure with our first attempt at rolling out a formalized performance management program at Avanti. When I joined Avanti, we didn’t have a formal performance management program and expectations around performance reviews were quite loose. Coming from larger, more sophisticated, and more formal organizations, we had a strong desire to institute something better at Avanti. We selected a comprehensive program based on the Balanced Scorecard framework, and created and rolled out extensive, weighted average rating cards for every single role in the company. A lot of time and work went into preparing all the scorecards. We celebrated the roll out and were quite excited about it initially. Then after one painful and ineffective review cycle, we shut the program down.

    The program failed (and we erred) because we didn’t acknowledge or respect our organization’s starting point and tried to go from nascent (1/10) to professional (10/10), with no bridge between. With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate that to successfully administer a balanced scorecard performance program framework assumes (a) your leaders are well trained and experienced in delivering performance reviews, (b) you can quickly and easily (emphasis here) retrieve the metrics you define as critical to measuring performance, (c) your employees understand the purpose of the program and are bought into the measurable behaviors being important indicators of job performance, and (d) you have a plan in place to sustain the program after the initial roll out. Because we lacked all the above, there was no buy in from employees or people leaders, and the program was short lived.

    The example above nicely highlights the broader point, which comes up often in various forms. If you respect your starting place, it becomes easier to plan for sustainable changes and calibrate the change required to get towards your end state. It’s tempting and well intentioned to strive for greatness right from the start, but rarely works when there’s a significant gap. If excellence is the goal, it’s ok to work your way there deliberately and intentionally over time.