Friday, November 10, 2023

How To Manage an Underperforming Employee

Several years ago I was called to my bosses office and given an ultimatum. Fire one of my direct reports, or be accountable for their actions. If you've been in a leadership role before, you may have encountered a situation where it's "them or me" and you had to make a tough decision. But as a servant leader, part of your job is to lay yourself on the line for your team, and that's exactly what I did. In this particular case, it wasn't a matter of the individual not doing their job, it was the manner in which they were treating those they interacted with. Ultimately the fix was easy. A simple heart to heart chat to make the individual aware of their actions and discover the source. That individual continued to work for the organization and is still there long after I moved on.

Who determines if an employee is underperforming? The customer? Leadership? Peers? The answer is clear, it should be the team leader. If goals, objectives, roles, and responsibilities are made clear to the team and there are processes in place that are measured, then the question is an easy one to answer and the same yardstick is used to judge each team member. You can't adequately manage what you don't measure. And if you don't establish standards and hold each team member to the same standard, you open yourself to unconscious bias. As leaders, it's impossible to not develop a level of friendship with our direct reports. Inevitably we end up having better relationships with some of our team members than others. But if you have processes, standard procedures, goals, and objectives  measured by metrics and key performance indicators, then you are able to measure everyone equally. As a guy I once worked for taught me, "Your number, is your number, is your number". Statistics don't lie. 

Here's an example. Let's say a peer within the company comes to you and reports that one of your team members is "making mistakes" and they do not want to work with them anymore. As that person's leader, how do you handle it? Do you go to the employee and ask "is this true"? Do you report the incident to HR? Do you ignore the issue? None of those things should be your first response. Here's how to handle the situation.

Define the "Mistakes"

When someone makes an accusation that "mistakes" were made, the first thing you need to determine is what those mistakes were. You need to get specifics. Dates, times, customers, documents, etc. All the information related to the complaint. Then you need to establish if this is a pattern of behavior or an isolated incident. We're all humans and we all make mistakes, but a pattern of mistakes can either lack of direction or it could indicate a performance issue. In order to determine that, you need to determine if your team member was following the documented process. I always tell my teams "If you follow the process, I have your back. If you cowboy outside the process, you're limiting my ability to help you". Once you've gathered the data, analyze it to determine what the outcome was. Did this mistake cost the company money? Did you lose a deal? Or did someone just get their feelings hurt? Did the accuser understand the role of your employee? I've seen instances where one of my direct reports was doing work "over and above" his job description. This became the standard by which all others were judged. "But Jim always did that for me". By operating outside of the process, Jim painted the rest of his team into a corner.

 Listen To Both Sides

There are two sides to every story. In today's company culture, we are much more aware of employee we should be. Because of this employees aren't always comfortable addressing issues person to person. We especially see this with younger members of the workforce. This issue is compounded by the fact that many jobs are now remote and face to face interaction is becoming increasingly rare and there are fewer opportunities to develop rapport with teammates and peers. In the "old days", back in my early career, if someone had a beef with you, they'd approach you and you'd work it out like professionals. Now that is less and less the case. The individual with the issue goes directly to the other persons boss, their boss, or HR...and in some cases all of those. When this happens, the employee may not even be aware that anything is wrong. You can't fix what you don't know about. By the time the issue gets back to the employee, they may have little to no memory of the issue they are being accused of. 

Once you hear the side of the accuser, and gather the information mentioned above, you can have a talk with your direct report. Be sure to present the specific information. Don't say, "I hear you and Bob aren't working well together", instead phrase it "Back in July you included incorrect information in a quote to XYZ Customer which caused us to lose a $300k deal". Immediately the employee may get on the defense, so it's important to let them know that you want to hear what they have to say. The next thing is important. Shut up and listen. Take notes. Then recap your employees statement and get their agreement on the facts.

Get To Know The Individual

In order to get to the root cause of the performance issue, you will need to dive into a personal level. We're all human beings with lives outside of work. In one instance, I had a employee tell me they had a number of health issues and had nearly died. They were prescribed medication that effected their ability to do their job. Obviously this can effect their work. Make sure the employee hasn't had any major life changes, health issues, or other problems that could impact their work performance. Next, check their other work. Chat with others they work with. Ask for feedback on their performance. Review their performance metrics. You ARE keeping metrics for your team aren't you? If not, how do you know what good looks like?

Form An Opinion

Now that you've seen the facts, spoken with both sides, and evaluated the situation...what do you feel the problem is? Who is at fault?'s usually a bit of both sides. If it turns out your direct report was at fault, a corrective action plan needs to be put in place.

Clear Understanding of the Process

Does the employee understand the process and what is expected of them? Review the process with them and make sure they know where to find the process documentation. If you don't have a well defined, written process, then you can't hold someone accountable to a process that doesn't exist. Even if the company has tribal knowledge of the process, you need to document your processes! This can't be overstated. 

Are They Committed

Does the employee show a genuine interest in improving? Do they value their job and the company or are they just trading their life for a paycheck? Any type of discussion or action around underperformance will be demoralizing to the employee. But if they are committed to doing better, your encouragement will go a LONG way to helping them become better. Your employee will be very gun shy after this process. They will constantly be on edge, worried about making another mistake. You need to let them know that you have their back and you want to see them succeed. Try to chat with them at least a couple of minutes a day. Not as part of a performance review, but just as a "How are you doing and what can I do to help you?". Show them you care, and they will care too. It's important to spend more time with those on your team who are struggling. It will pay dividends down the road.

Are They The Right Fit?

My motto has always been, "Hire personality and teach skill". If someone has the right attitude and willingness to learn, they are usually a good fit on my teams. I once hired a gentleman who worked in food service prior to joining my technical team. Obviously two vastly different skill sets. His attitude was awesome and his work ethic was second to none. His positive attitude was infectious and the team rallied around him. He eventually learned the job (in quick time) and was a valuable member of the team. You may find that you have a great employee, but they may be a better fit elsewhere in the organization. Find out what their passion is and help align them with a role that best matches them. 

Difficult Decisions

There is an old saying, "Hire slow and fire fast". There is a lot of wisdom in this statement. If you truly feel like an employee isn't a good fit for your team, don't let them linger. You will not only lose the respect of the rest of the team, it can have serious negative consequences to the team and to your relationships with your higher ups. I am not saying that you trade one set of problems for another. Firing an employee who needs some coaching only to hire someone else who...guess what...will also need some coaching, is not a good plan. But if you have read my post on employee engagement, you know the damage that a disengaged employee can do to your team. You have to rid yourself of that rot as quickly as possible. 

Being a leader is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have, but also one of the most stressful. When you lead a team, you are judged by how effective your team is. During my training at the American Management Association, we were told "the employee always wins". That's very true. They can make you or break you. You responsibilities as a leader must include being a friend, psychologist, confidant, battle buddy, etc. A boss tells people what to do, but a leader inspires them to do it and do it well.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Heart of a Servant

Robert K. Greenleaf is credited as the father of Servant Leadership. While Greenleaf certainly brought the concept of servant leadership to the forefront with his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, he did not create the concept of servant leadership. There have been several historically significant servant leaders over the years. Two that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. To understand what made them servant leaders, let's take a look at the traits of a servant leader:
  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Building community
If you have even a modest knowledge of history, you can see how the two men were servant leaders. While this blog does not have a religious focus, my Christian faith is built on servant leadership. Jesus was the epitome of a servant leader. So concerned with the well being of others that he allowed himself to be crucified for them.

I suspect some of you are starting to see a pattern here. Do you have to be killed to be a good servant leader? No, of course not, but you will find it difficult at times to stand up to those who still subscribe to the authoritarian style of leadership. They simply don't understand why you spend so much time trying to develop your team, mentor them, and make them successful. Why not cast the under performers aside and get someone else who can do the job better? I once heard a "leader" say, "be slow to hire and quick to fire".

My career began in 1987 when I got my first paycheck for providing technology services. Over the past 33 years, I've seen examples of great leadership and examples of woeful attempts at leadership. A servant leader never misses the opportunity to listen and become aware of issues, but it doesn't stop there. Just as a coach watches film with their team, a servant leader has to do the same thing. It's important to talk with your team members both as a group when discussing team performance, and individually when addressing individual performance. Many leaders don't want to address issues. An example of this would be something I've seen happen many times. It's employee review time and the boss sits you down to discuss your performance over the past year. He starts to give specific examples of times when you fell below expectations and mentions some customer complaints. You sit in shock as this is the FIRST TIME you've heard any of this. Or what about the person who is driven, hard working, smart, and wants to move up in the company. They apply for every leadership position that becomes available, but eventually they have to leave the company to advance their career because they are never selected for promotion. After leaving the company, they are having lunch with a former co-worker who tells them, "you never got promoted because you said something that one of the VP's didn't agree with in a meeting once". Wow! So the organization was willing to throw away a hard working, dedicated employee because someone didn't have the intestinal fortitude to pull the person aside and said, "I want to discuss what was said in the meeting". As a leader, having conversations which address uncomfortable topics doesn't have to be an uncomfortable process. I once had to deal with a customer complaint regarding one of my team members. I took him to lunch and used the four most powerful words in the English language...."I need your help". When he asked how he could help, I told him the situation. He admitted he was wrong, and went on to describe some health issues he was experiencing which were weighing on him. At the end of the conversation he said to me, "this helped me more than you know". What I thought was going to be a very confrontational discussion turned out to be something that made us both feel better. I showed my team member that I cared about him.

One of the biggest mistakes most leaders make is offering criticism (constructive or not) and failing to discuss a plan to help that person become better. Have you ever been told, "You just weren't what we were looking for in that role" or "the company is looking to go in a different direction" but you never get any guidance on exactly what they were looking for or what direction the company is going? What they are actually saying to you is that they don't have enough concern for you to help you achieve your career goals. A true servant leader never holds their team members under water. They never suppress them to keep them from moving up in the organization just so they won't have to hire someone to replace them. I have many examples in my career where individuals I recruited and hired went on to greater heights than I have attained professionally. That is a huge source of pride for me.

As a servant leader my overall desire is to:
  • Build Teams
  • Help People
  • Develop Relationships
  • Deliver Excellence
  • Provide Value
I do those things by using the traits of a servant leader. The top three traits all focus on people. I am a firm believer that you can teach skill, but you can't teach personality. I can show anyone how to do the last two. I can develop processes and standards to guide teams to providing excellence and value. What I can't do is shape someone's heart and mind.

If you are a leader responsible for building a strong team, make sure you develop a team culture around servant leadership. Hire people with the heart of a servant. In today's job market, so many companies scan for key words. I was once told that I should re-write my resume for every job I apply for so the keyword scanner will get my resume through the vetting process. I strongly caution you against hiring this way. Use my third bullet point above...develop relationships. Keep track of individuals you feel would be great additions to your team, even if you don't have available positions. Leverage the relationships of your existing team members. Chances are, they will know other people who have similar values to their own. Build a strong people network of quality individuals you can call on when needed and they can do the same with you.

Ultimately, it's all about people helping people.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Employee Always Wins

Back in 2009 I traveled to New York City to study at the American Management Association. It was fairly early in my management career and I thought I was a "big shot" getting to go to NYC and learn management. My class was mostly entry level managers who had never held a leadership role or taken any other leadership training. The instructor had us introduce ourselves and when it came to me, I mentioned that I'd had Six Sigma Team Leader and Total Quality Management training and that I had become a trainer on those subjects for my company. At break the instructor pulled me aside and told me that I was probably in the wrong class as it was for people with no previous management experience. As any great leader does, he recognized my knowledge and skill and put me to use as a sort of co-instructor. We had a great week of class, and the instructor took extra time with me to give me instruction he wasn't giving the rest of the class. One of the things he told me was, "the employee always wins". At first, I wasn't sure what he meant, but he went on to tell me that many of the students in the class were going to make the common mistake of being the "boss" versus being a leader. He went on to explain that it's not the job of an effective manager to tell people what needs to be done. It's their job to set a vision, to be a story teller, to help their team understand why what they do is important and where it fits in the overall success of the company. A great leader motivates, mentors, and has a deep concern for the success of their team.

So how do the employees win? The instructor laid it out for me. He told me that great employees who are highly skilled got that way because they are motivated and want to continually improve themselves. They need to be engaged and involved. They need to feel important and needed. If they do not get what they desire emotionally, they have the marketable skills to leave the organization and go work somewhere else. They take with them institutional knowledge, but also their potential which wasn't properly leveraged. Now the manager has been left with people who either have no marketable skills, or they are so apathetic they figure "if I leave it will be the same somewhere else". To be fair, these employees may be fantastic people. They may be smart, and have lots of knowledge and skill, but when you work for a bad manager, you lose all motivation to go beyond what is asked of you. You don't feel connected to the mission at hand. You are simply "doing time", turning the crank until the end of the day.

Where does this leave the manager? How have they "lost"? Here's what happens. Their top talent has left them leaving them with a team that has grown apathetic and is performing at a bare minimum level. Some employees may even begin to under perform. Here's where things typically go really wrong. The manager, thinking they are doing their job, has a conversation with the under performing employee. This usually happens during a review period. The manager gives them poor ratings on their review, and often provides them with a corrective action plan (CAP) on how to "improve" their poor rating. This is normally the beginning of the end. The employee is further demotivated by this activity and if there was any trust and rapport built between the two, it's fractured now. The employee will begin doing just enough to meet the expectations of their review. No less, and absolutely no more. That's not the dangerous part though. That same employee will now spread a message of despair throughout the organization. Negativity breeds negativity. Soon others will begin to feel the same way as their friend and co-worker. Before you know it, this will get back to the bad manager who either has to let that employee go, or try to have another "one on one" conversation with the employee.

The bad manager is costing the company a lot of money in lost production, low employee morale, and turnover. The sad part is that none of this is typically measured. It should be a key performance indicator for every company, but it isn't. So our manager is losing, the company is losing, and the employees without marketable skills are losing. Meanwhile, the high performing employees have gone on to another company to help them succeed...sometimes it's the competition. They took with them all your internal knowledge. Being high performing, they have already done a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis on your company in their head. They know where all the breakdowns are and how to fix them...but you never asked them to help. So now they are taking those lessons learned to your competitors.

So we know the problem, but how do we fix it? How do you make bad managers into good ones? First off, I want share my experience. This is based on what I have personally witnessed. You can send someone to training, you can have them read books, you can tell them how a good manager should lead....but if it's not in their heart to love people and want them to succeed....they more than likely will not be a good manager. You can teach skill, but you can't teach personality. The best managers I have ever had weren't the ones who had a superior intellect than me, or who were more knowledgeable than me. No, the best managers I've ever had where the ones who invited me to lunch. Asked me about my family. Asked for my thoughts around issues not related to my job. They took the time to develop a strong friendship with me. Lastly, they asked, "How can I help?". I've had other managers ask that question, but you can tell they are asking it because they read in some book that is what they should do. It didn't come from the heart, and they don't really care. The ones that care not only ask the question, but follow through on what you told them you need.

Let's go back and look at that CAP scenario again. What if that manager had said, "I can see you're not 100% engaged in your job, and I understand that. Tell me how I can help you in your career. What can I do to get you to a place where you will perform to your fullest potential?". A true leader wants to help people succeed even if it's not on their team. A good leader will provide constructive criticism which will be received as beneficial. If you have a strong person on your team who is overqualified for their role, never hold them under water. Help them rise to the top. This not only shows that person you care, but it shows your team as well. It builds trust. It also expands your influence. I once had a guy working for me as a desktop support technician. He was awesome! Better than me in many aspects. I helped him get promoted to a management position. He is a VP in a large company today making far more than I do. If I needed his help with something, I know he'd take my call anytime.

If you are a manager, do not underestimate the impact you are having not only on your company, but on the lives of all your team members. Being a great leader is the best thing in the world. There is nothing more fulfilling than being the leader of a strong team that works well together. A team who loves their jobs and works hard for the company because they have an affinity for the customers and the mission of the company. Nothing beats winning as a team.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Leaderhship Principles: Before Amazon...There was Dad

Over the past 15 years of my career I have focused on leadership, team building, business acumen, and emotional intelligence. I made this decision after being in primarily technical roles for the previous 15 years. It was spurred by a conversation with a respected peer. The conversation was about how information technology was changing and that soon the "technology generalist" would become obsolete as technology would advance so far that no one could fully grasp every aspect of it. We chatted about how eventually there will be technology workers who support daily operations to "keep the lights on" and IT strategists who support the business by achieving goals and objectives using technology. I've been in the field long enough to remember the days when the "IT Guy" was the go to do it all guy for anything technology related. Need a phone...IT Guy. Need a power strip...IT Guy. Need printer paper...IT Guy. The IT Guy did everything related to just about anything that plugged into the wall. I've held those jobs, and I always loved being the hero. Nothing I liked more than having to solve a tough technical problem and the awesome feeling you get walking out of the office in the wee hours of the morning exhausted, knowing you just saved the day for hundreds if not thousands of people who depend on the systems you support.

My Dad owned his own business and from the time I was old enough to have any recollection, he was grooming me to run his business. I remember being a kid and going with him to work in the summers. I'd stuff envelopes, do filing, get the mail, make coffee, clean coffee mugs, empty the trash, etc. But I'd also be asked to sit in meetings, go to business lunches, and go on sales calls. I learned that PEOPLE are the most valuable asset a business has. Not only the internal staff, but the customers and the relationships you build with them. Dad used to say, "I don't know what I'm going to be selling, but I know who I'm going to be selling it to". He loved his job. He loved his customers. They were like family to him. So when I decided to make the move into IT leadership, I took all those lessons my Dad taught me and carried them with me. It was tough at first. Most companies weren't used to the "IT Guy" talking about customers, business objectives, process improvement, and team leadership. They expected the talk of speeds and feeds, gigabytes, and gigabits.....but leave the business talk to the grown ups please. Over the past decade I've seen a tremendous shift. Even Jack Welch, the well known leader of General Electric once said that GE used to be an appliance company that used technology, but now they were a technology company that also make appliances.

One of the giants in business is Amazon. Recently Amazon announced they were going to have a large presence here in Nashville. Of course, I've been an Amazon customer for many years, and I've been a member of the Nashville IT community for over 30 years. IT in Nashville used to be a pretty tight knit group, and to some extent it still is. I know people who work for big and small companies alike. It's not as close a group as it used to be, but some of the old crew is still around. So when Amazon made its announcement  I was curious how it would impact the IT community in Nashville.

I can't count the number of cassette tapes, seminars, and books my dad gave me or dragged me to including paying for me to attend the Dale Carnegie Course, which was the last thing he ever bought for me before passing away in 1995. I was exposed to people such as Norman Vincent Peale, Zig Ziglar, Charlie "Tremendous" Jones, Lee Iacocca, Brian Tracy, and Napoleon Hill. So when I started doing my due diligence on Amazon, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Amazon's Leadership Principles. While Amazon says these principles make them "peculiar", they are in fact tried and proven techniques which Amazon has leveraged to become a spectacular success and one of the largest companies in the world.

Let's take a look at these principles and apply some of my Dad's teachings to them. Each one of them I read I can hear a Dad telling me a story or teaching me something.

Customer Obsession
As mentioned above, Dad loved his customers. He told me "regardless of what you sell, you're #1 product is yourself. You're always in the relationship business". Most of Dad's customers knew him as "Coach". He's been gone 25 years this year and when I run into any of his customers, they all tell me how much they miss him. He really cherished his relationships.

One of Dad's favorite sayings was, "When you commit to it, you should be tied to it and made do it!". He was a huge advocate of personal responsibility and integrity. If you had the ball on something, it was up to you to deliver on your commitments. This is something so many companies struggle with because they only allow "leadership" to own things. According to Amazon's principles, everyone is expected to be an owner and act accordingly.

Invent and Simplify
Dad never graduated college thanks to the Korean War dragging him away, but he wasn't lacking in common sense and logic. When I was younger, I was in love with technology and always wanted the latest and greatest gizmos. I constantly tried to convince him to buy into the world of technology. Dad managed to get by just fine without a computer, a hand held cell phone, or any technology other than his notebook....which he wrote down ever phone call, every meeting, every idea. Many successes and many more failures were launched from that simple notebook. This proved to me the only think hold me back is my ability to think and cut through the noise. The KISS principle has always been a guiding force for me. If you can't explain your process, simply, then it's probably broken.

Are Right, A Lot
One quote stands out here...Dad used to say, "I'm paid to be right".

Learn and Be Curious
Continual learning was always impressed on me. As mentioned above, Dad continually read books or listened to motivational or training cassettes. One time I asked why and he told me, "You have to keep getting better everyday because your competition is".

Hire and Develop the Best
I could write an entire blog post on just this one point. Dad had a way of breaking you down, and building you up stronger than you were before. He could crush you with a look....never saying a word. He knew how to motivate people. It's one of the reasons people called him "Coach". He did coach basketball for a few years back in the 50's...but he never stopped developing his teams. He always had the heart of a teacher.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Wow..this one. I can hear Dad saying, "Do it right or don't do it". So many times I did "good enough" in my eyes, but to him it was just "getting by". He wanted me to excel and live up to my potential.

Think Big
Dad always had big ideas. Many of them were brilliant, many weren't. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he didn't, but he never stopped thinking about that next big move.

Bias for Action
Pardon the language, but I can hear Dad saying, "Shit, or get off the pot". Excuses, waiting on ____, etc. were not something he tolerated. "Do what I told you to do son". Just get it done!

Dad was born in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.  He seldom ever spent loose change. I remember nights as a family rolling coins to take the the bank. He collected them in big coffee cans. Being the son of a sharecropper, my Dad embodied doing more with less.

Dive Deep
As with any small business, Dad had an accountant, lawyer, banker, etc. But he always double checked what they did. Not that he didn't trust them, he just wanted to know what was going on. "Trust but verify" as the Russian proverb (and Ronald Reagan) says. There wasn't a fact or a figure he couldn't spout off without thinking. It was his company. He owned it.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Backbone was something Dad had is spades. He was one of those rare individuals who would own a room when he entered it. He had gravitas. A true presence. When he disagreed with you, you knew it. But there were times when he would tell you, "I don't agree with you, but we can disagree without being disagreeable".

Deliver Results
At the end of the day, results are all that matters. Did you get the job done? Did you meet your goal? There were never excuses, only "why". Why did it happen and how do we fix it. I remember a phrase from some of his marketing material..."Results oriented, service driven".

If Dad were alive today, I don't think he'd think much of the Amazon website. He'd rather keep his business local and do it with a handshake and a smile. But when it comes to running a company, I think he'd enjoy reading about how Amazon does it. He might even read about Jeff Bezos to see if he can learn something.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

What is your deepest fear?

It's a new year, a new decade, and I'm sure many people are making those annual resolutions to better themselves in one way or another. Why people wait until a new year to make these changes has always been a bit of a mystery to me. We all have shortcomings. We all fail from time to time. We all experience seasons in our lives where things aren't going the way we would like them to go. Why wait to change these things? One of the things I adopted years ago was a continuous improvement strategy. I'm always looking for ways to better myself. Improvement comes in may forms. It may be in the form of education, health, wealth, career advancement, or helping others (which is HIGHLY beneficial both people).

So what drives my desire to be a better person? What makes me want to be successful in all that I do? That's easy....fear.'s not the sort of fear you're thinking of. It's not like a fear of heights, or a fear of the dark, or a fear of being hurt. No, the fear I'm talking about is different.

I am a huge basketball fan and I love teaching. If I were to win the lottery, I'd find a position teaching business and technology in high school and coach the basketball team. Why? Because I absolutely love help people succeed. Helping people solve problems, set goals, and achieve their objectives. There was a movie that came out several years ago called Coach Carter starring Samuel L. Jackson. The movie is about a successful business man who becomes the basketball coach of an inner city school. The kids are failing their classes, lack respect for each other or authority, and are on a path to becoming career criminals. Coach Carter sees the potential in these young men and sets high expectations for them. He teaches them to respect each other and authority. He sets goals for them and establishes consequences for not achieving the goals. He cares about them and gives them a sense of self worth and self pride. There is a point in the movie where he asks one of the players what his greatest fear is. The boy laughs it off, but later in the movie the student understands the question and quotes a passage from a book called A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles written by Marianne Williamson. The quote he cited was:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

This is the fear I feel. The fear that I am not being the best I can be. The fear that the next great idea, the next great invention, the next great accomplish is in me...but I can't produce it. The statement in bold above is more commonly where I find myself. I play small as to not appear like a "know it all". I temper myself as to not alienate those around me. If you are regular reader of this blog, or my vlog It's All About People, then you know my thoughts, beliefs, and passions. Every day I get one day closer to the end of my life. One more day gone that I cannot get back. So what is my plan for harnessing my power?

  1. Build A People Network
    Being a hermit in a cubicle makes it very difficult to accomplish greatness. Everyone needs help from time to time. Successful people who say they are "self made" are fooling themselves. Someone at some point gave them a shot, a helping hand, advice, etc. It's very, very difficult to achieve success without some help. My Dad told me, The four most powerful words in the English language are "I need your help". He was absolutely spot on. Find opportunities to be around people who are at the level you want to be at. Listen and learn.
  2. Be a Lifelong Learner
    I remember when I was a kid thinking about how happy I would be when I didn't have to go to school anymore. Little did I know that I'd be taking classes almost continually my entire life. Working in the technology field, things change rapidly. I am always keeping abreast of what's on the horizon, but also sharpening my business skills and emotional intelligence. In addition to work related things, I've also learned to play an instrument and even held a provisional motorcycle racing license at one point. Keeping your mind sharp while setting and achieving goals will help develop success habits. 
  3. Never "Done"
    I once heard a speaker say, the key to happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you get. I wholeheartedly disagree. If I find myself down and out, homeless, jobless, and living under a mean I'm supposed to "want" that and be happy? I don't think so. I have a career goal. That goal is to become the CIO of a large IT organization. It's been my goal since I was a teenager, when many companies didn't even have a CIO. I will always be setting new goals and working to achieve them...personal and business. I will never sit back and say, "I'm done", because that will only happen on the day I draw my final breath. 
  4. Help Others
    One of the greatest things in life is helping others succeed. That's why my "win the lottery" dream is to coach and teach. Seeing kids begin to think differently, to realize their potential, set goals, and ultimately either achieve success or learn through failure. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we all go through seasons of life. There have been times in my life where people I have helped, given a chance, mentored, coached, or lended a hand to ended up in a position to help me. That's not to say I only help people in the event they can help me sometime. That's not the case at all, but it's a wonderful side benefit. Through serving others, you end up with a #1 on this list...a big network of people you can call on and who can call on you.
It's a new year and if you're the type to declare a new year means a new you, give the four things above a try. It requires commitment, time, and a sincere attitude but if you do the things above you will eventually be in a better situation. It won't happen immediately, but one day you will eventually find yourself in a situation that shows you are powerful beyond measure.

"And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Monday, December 9, 2019

Hiring Technology Leaders

If you have read my other blog posts, you know that I'm a huge proponent of servant leadership. The days of top down authoritative leadership are quickly becoming bygone. We live in the information age, where knowledge of anything is a few clicks away. I remember back in 1987 when I started my IT career there was two ways of learning new technology. You either read a book about 3" thick and memorized as much of it as you could (keeping it on a shelf for reference), or you installed the hardware or software and figured things out through trial and error. This was in the days before everything was GUI driven. You got a blinking prompt, and you had to know what to type. The beauty thing is, nearly every operating system performed similarly, so you simply had to look up the equivalent command from an OS you were familiar with. Logic skills were paramount. Tenacity, patience, and a strong desire to succeed were mandatory traits. There were many times I worked on something for hours...even days...only to have it not work and have to start over again. I did not see these setbacks as failure (because that wasn't an option), I saw them as learning. The more I failed, the more I learned, and the better I got at my job.

As my career developed and I moved from one job to another, my technical skill set grew exponentially. In 2004 I found myself working for a large multinational corporation where I rose to IT Manager for the continental United States. The title was really a misnomer. I was leading 15 direct reports and managing a multi-million budget. This was no entry level manager job. It was really more of a director or assistant VP role. Finding myself in this new position where I had to manage people and money versus just managing machines, was more than a little intimidating. I made some mistakes. Luckily I had a boss who believed in servant leadership. He had a conversation with me that changed my career. He asked me if I wanted to be a network engineer or a manager. Of course I replied "manager". That's when he told me that I needed to start putting the needs of my team first. He taught me that mentoring people, helping them succeed, putting a plan together for their professional growth, and making sure they were listed to (and heard!) was more important that configuring servers and routers. Over the years since, I have focused on learning business and leadership. My technical skills are there. My logic skills are there. But laying on top of all of those skills is my heart, my passion, and my love for seeing people succeed and delivering excellence.

One of the things I enjoy doing is looking at job postings for senior IT leadership positions. As I read them, I see line after line of technical requirements. But very little mention of leadership skill. There may be a bullet point that reads, "Manage team", or "Manage staff". I always shake my head in disbelief. Leadership isn't about technology. One of the best bosses I ever had was not technical at all, but was an awesome servant leader who was humble and helped me and my team succeed. I'd have walked over hot coals and broken glass for her and still would till this day. I do think having a strong technical background is important in many IT leadership roles because you need to have an idea of what you're tasking your team to do. You need to have been in the trenches at some point and know what it's like to sleep on a data center floor or a lobby couch. You need to know what it's like to work nights, holidays, weekends, and how much it impacts someone's family when you take them away on special occasions. You need to be logical and have strong problem solving skills. But the need for strong technical knowledge on particular hardware and software is no longer a big need for senior IT leaders. With a simple search, you can find the answer to just about any questions. You may be able to find a instruction video which walks you through whatever you need to know. The information is available at your fingertips. What most organizations need in a leader isn't a walking wiki of technical knowledge, but someone with a heart. Someone who can focus a team on "why we do the work". Someone who has emotional intelligence and knows how to provide the right coaching at the right time. They need someone who is a relationship builder and a great listener. Someone who cares about the customer and what the mission of the company is.

Now don't get me wrong, you still need to focus on the profit motive. You still need to make the most efficient use of resources. You have to have metrics and key performance indicators. But you need to be able to translate those things into a "what's in it for me" (WIIFM) for your team. Get them engaged. Show them the hard work they put in is actually moving the needle. Give them a sense of pride in the work they do versus them feeling like they are trading their life for money.

I once applied for a leadership role where I met or exceeded every job requirement. A few days later, I received an email asking me to fill out a questionnaire to help them understand more about me as a leader. My excitement level hit the roof! I've spent time at many organizations in leadership roles, but this was the first time any employer had ever asked me to detail my leadership style and philosophy.

If you're hiring for a leadership position, or if you're a technical recruiter who is searching for leadership candidates to pitch to your clients, be sure to focus on the traits that make great leaders. You can teach technology, but you can't teach personality. As young people enter the workforce, who have never known life without constant access to information, they are less impressed with what you know and more impressed with how you make them feel. Building a strong technical team starts with a leader who wants to engage, empower, and mentor their team members and humble themselves to be a servant to their team.

The greatest accomplishment of a leader is not telling people what to do, it's getting them to do things without having to ask them. Having them perform at a high level because they are proud of their work and their contribution to the good of the organization. The greatest leaders sacrifice their pride and privilege for the good of their team. They lead with humility and empathy. They serve the organization, and approach each day as an opportunity to help their team, and the organization become more successful.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Rest if you must, but don't you quit

When I was in 5th grade we had a talent show. My talent at that age was more or less the same as it is today...being a ham. I signed up and listed my talent as "stand up comedian". Over the next few weeks we had rehearsal for everyone performing in the talent show. Some danced, some sang, some played guitar, etc. One girl recited a poem. We all performed our acts in front of each other multiple times and that poem stuck with me and I have applied its wisdom throughout my career. That poem was called Don't Quit by John Greenleaf Whittier. She only recited the first verse, but what a verse it was.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Don't Quit

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is strange with its twists and turns
As every one of us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit—
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

As I age and gain wisdom and experience, the meaning of this poem changes. Initially I took it to mean no matter how bad something is, stick it out. Don't quit. Quitting is failure. But that's not what the poem means to me now. Sometimes quitting IS "hanging in there". Accepting a less than optimal situation because you fear what making a leap might entail. Playing it safe and not having the courage to step out of a bad situation in order to find a better one. That's "quitting" to me. That's giving up. Having a pessimistic attitude of "it will be the same wherever I go"...that's quitting. Not having confidence and a keen sense of your self worth...that's quitting. Trading your life for a paycheck at a job that provides you no joy and satisfaction...that's quitting. This poem no longer means quitting "things" to means quitting on myself. I will never, ever, quit on myself.

All of us have had a difficult time in our lives at some point. I know I have so many tales of woe I could easily write a book on them. Making the decision to change your life is a tough one. People often fear life outside of their comfort zones. But folks, that's where life begins! Let's look at the dark side for a minute. Let's say you make the leap to change your life, your career, your marriage...whatever...and you fail. At the time, it's devastating. This is the point where most people feel hopeless. Just keep in mind that 3, 4, 5...10 years down the road...this will be just a story in your life. That's what our past is, a series of stories. Each story, if used correctly, can teach us and motivate us to become better. To do greater things!

My inspiration for this blog post is a former team of mine. Truly the best team I've ever been a part of, and I've been on some great teams. As of this writing, each of those guys are now enduring a difficult time. They are writing a story in their life. I think about them every day. I want to help them any way I can, but I'm not in a position to do much for them. A a leader, a big part of your job is making sure your team is motivated, empowered, and engaged. I want to share this poem with them. Let them know to not quit on themselves. To never lose that drive for excellence I saw in each of them. I want them to know that they have immense value and are among the most rounded, skilled professionals I've ever had the honor of working with.

Gentlemen, rest if you must, but don't you quit!

How To Manage an Underperforming Employee

Several years ago I was called to my bosses office and given an ultimatum. Fire one of my direct reports, or be accountable for their action...