Leadership Barometer 10 Lead by Example

August 19, 2019

There are lots of ways you can assess the caliber of a leader quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Leads by Example

Leading by example sounds like a simple concept, yet many leaders struggle to do it in day to day operations. Reason: it is easy to fall into a trap of “do as I say, not as I do.” Of course, this is a deadly sin for any leader.

Most leaders would deny having a problem in this area, yet many of them really do not see how they often compromise their position. Here are three extreme examples by the same leader to illustrate my point.

Just a quick shortcut

I once knew a plant manager who was world class at this. He would rant and rave about following the “do not walk inside the barrier” signs when construction was happening in the plant. He wanted managers to consider firing any employee caught crossing a barrier.

Yet, I saw him coming to work early one morning and park in his special spot next to the building. He then stepped over a safety cone and chain to get to the main door rather than walk around to a side door.

He was aware of the fact that no work was going on at the time and was in a rush, but he was unaware that anybody saw his transgression. In other words, he thought he had gotten away with it, but he was wrong.

Wear your protective gear

This same manager insisted in having a shutdown and review any time there was a safety incident within the plant. That was laudable. During one such inspection following a safety incident, he was standing in the production area twirling the safety glasses we had given him around next to his face.

I politely told him to please put on his safety glasses. He did so but let me know by his body language that I had embarrassed him. My reaction? “Too bad!”

Show you really do care

A third incident with this leader that really fried my bacon was when we had a rather serious incident that could have caused a fatality. I ordered the operation shut down for a full investigation.

This was a large conveyor system for heavy materials that needed to be operated in complete darkness because the product being moved was photographic movie film. One of the interlocks to keep product separated had failed and an operator went in to clear a jam. He successfully cleared the jam but nearly got crushed by the incoming product afterward.

They reviewed the accident report with me and indicated they were ready to start up again. I asked how they could guarantee the same problem would not happen again in the future. Not receiving a suitable answer, I ordered a complete stand down of the operation and further fail safe measures. This was not popular with the employees who figured they could just be more careful.

After wrestling with the issues for a full day, the operations and maintenance personnel came up with a solution that really would guarantee the problem never happened again.

I called a special meeting with the production people and the Plant Manager to go over the problem and the resolution. We had the meeting, but the Plant Manager never showed up, even though his administration person said he was available at that time. What an awful signal to send the troops. Apparently he had something better to do.

After I wrote a blistering e-mail, I was on his “blackball list” until he was fired by upper management for insubordination and lying.

People notice

The point of these examples is that people really do notice what leaders do. When they say one thing and then do something more expedient, there is no way to command respect. It should be grounds for termination of any manager.

But lowly employees do not have the power to actually fire their leader, so they just do it mentally and write him off as a lost cause. There is no trust for the manager.

By the way, if you asked this Plant Manager if he had ever sent mixed signals on safety, he would totally and vehemently deny it. He was honestly unaware of his stupid actions, as is the case with most managers who are duplicitous.

Positive side

Beyond these obvious atrocities, there are positive things leaders can do. When you go out of your own comfort zone to do something positive, people notice that as well. If a leader cuts her vacation short by 2 days in order to support an important plant tour with a new customer, that really registers with people.

If a manager goes out and buys a gift certificate with his own money to thank an employee who went way beyond the expected performance, word of it gets around. When a manager helps clean up a conference room after a long meeting, it sends a signal.

These ideas are not rocket science, yet many managers fail at this basic stuff. You need to seek out ways to go above and beyond what people expect of you and never, ever violate a rule you expect others to follow.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Trust Withdrawal Ripples

August 10, 2013

water droplet emergingI liken the degree of trust between individuals in an organization to a bank account. There is a current balance of trust that is the result of hundreds of transactions (deposits and withdrawals) that occur between individuals on a daily basis. In my analogy, it is easy to make small deposits in the account. For example, doing what you said you were going to do is a small deposit in trust. Praising another person is another way to make a small deposit.

Large deposits are more difficult to make because they often require a special circumstance. For example, if I go into your burning house to save your dog, that is a huge trust deposit because I risked my life to retrieve something of value to you.

Making withdrawals, either large or small, is just as easy as the deposits. I call it “The Ratchet Effect,” when someone who had built up a large balance in the trust account wipes it out with a single major withdrawal. In this article I will share some observations on how trust withdrawals spread like the ripples in a still pond when you drop a stone in it.

A withdrawal is usually between individuals, although it is possible to make a withdrawal with several individuals with a single action. Let me use an example of a withdrawal to illustrate my point.

Suppose you are a manager of a group, and there is a need to appoint a new supervisor to work under you. You have asked several group members to interview candidate supervisors and make a recommendation. They spend a week interviewing five potential candidates: two internal to the organization, and three outside resources. The team comes back with a firm recommendation that Sally, one of the internal candidates, is by far the best match for the job. This puts you in a no win situation because your boss is demanding you appoint Mark, his son-in-law, from outside the organization. You make an announcement that Mark will fill the vacant slot, and the entire workforce is very upset.

They believe your willingness to have them interview candidates was just window dressing, and you knew all along who would be selected. In reality, until your boss spoke up yesterday, you also would have selected Sally for the promotion. Your boss demanded that you not tell anyone why you selected Mark or you would lose your position. What happens is a loss of trust for you on the part of most individuals on the team, but that is not the end of the damage in this case.

Without the ability for you to explain that the choice was out of your hands, but you did not know that until late in the process, the problem becomes bigger. The upset individuals will freely express their lack of trust in you. There will also be an undertow of resentment on the part of Sally, which may cause behaviors that lower her future potential. The ripple effect will carry over as Mark tries to gain credibility as the new supervisor. People will undermine every effort he makes regardless of his skill or sincerity. Your boss is going to be suspect, even though you do not tell people directly that Mark was his choice, not yours. Blatant nepotism is easy to spot, and people will figure out the connection quickly through online searches. You will be blamed for allowing it to occur.

Now the rumor mill picks up the chant, and the damage begins to spread throughout the organization and beyond. Incidentally, your sin usually grows in severity as the rumors persist. You may never know the extent of the compromise to your reputation from a single situation. It is vital to watch the body language of people with whom you interface to identify when something is wrong but they are not telling you overtly. You will sense a certain coolness and loss of eye contact. You may observe more side conversations than usual.

When you see signs of a change in attitude toward you, it is important to stop and ask questions until you get to the bottom of the issue. Usually you can get at least one person to open up in private about what others are saying. In this example, your hands were tied in terms of what you can say, but there is still the ability to observe people and ask questions. Then you can take some prudent mitigating actions as early as possible to preserve as much trust as you can. By taking humble corrective actions near the time of an infraction, you can prevent the ripples from spreading.


Merger Miseries 2 – Zombies in the Office

September 12, 2010

This is a second episode in a series on Merger Miseries. It has to do with the state of limbo that occurs immediately after top management announces the merger. The action is a huge change in how the business will be conducted, and it will impact everyone. The new order will have fewer people, and the work will be more complex. The problem is, until things stabilize, nobody really knows how to proceed. Old relationships, both internal and external, are no longer the same, so everyone acts like zombies in a fog of not knowing what to do.

Top managers sequester themselves trying to figure out who will stay and who will go. There is less guidance from the top at the very instant when the entire workforce is in dire need of direction. It would be akin to having a major disaster, like a flood or an earthquake, and having all of the public safety officials go on vacation. Not too smart!

Customers who are in need of products or services are not inclined to take 6 months off while the organization sorts itself out. They become highly vocal and critical of the confusion. If they can easily shift to a different supplier, that is often the tragic remedy, but if the incubation time for accrediting a new supplier is very long, that may not be an option. Enraged customers leave all kinds of hate voice messages for the top officers. The senior leaders are in no position to answer these calls for help because they are up to their ears trying to figure out the new order. They might do their personnel selection process during the daylight hours, and field customer complaints later at night while popping antacid pills and wondering why they attempted such an abrupt announcement of the merger.

The entire supply chain is compromised because production planning is in transition. Raw material suppliers and delivery groups are getting wrong or mixed signals. In a merger, the production operation is expected to be less volatile than staff areas because the demand for product or service is stable, but with the supply chain weakened or broken, production groups have shortages or floods of materials to deal with, and idle time on the production line goes up dramatically.

When quality issues arise on the production line, the quality staff is not as supportive as in the past because the group is in strategy meetings trying to figure out how to justify the combined staffs from the previous two entities. Since the quality processes of each entity are different, the methods of reacting when a problem arises are unclear. People on the production line do the best they can to patch together policies from studying both of the old systems and then get yelled at if they miss something.

These are just a few examples where people are confused, scared, angry, and overwhelmed when a merger is thrust upon them from above without the proper planning in advance. Every area of the organization has these kinds of problems, so the operation is basically in “free fall” until stability returns. Normally that takes weeks at best and years at worst. Customer service goes down, and costs skyrocket out of control. The combination of lower revenue from fleeing customers and higher operating costs make the profit picture a disaster, and top management holds the bag.

I hope you are getting the idea that merging two organizations without the proper precursors makes about as much sense as putting your hand on a red hot stove burner. Amazingly, poorly planned mergers occur every day. Top managers believe it is possible to execute a merger and then figure out how to accomplish the people side of it. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

In future episodes, I will outline several antidotes to this disastrous but typical scenario.