Archive for the ‘Employee Morale’ Category

The (Not Exact) Characteristics of a Successful Leader

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Once upon a time, a CEO I worked with critiqued the difference between our leadership styles.  He told me, “You’re like a coconut.  You’re hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.  People think you’re tough until they get to know you.  Then they realize you care about them.”

He then said something shocking.  He said, “I’m just the opposite.  Everybody likes me instantly.”  “But I’m hard on the inside,” he continued, waving his arm at a group of people working for his company.  “I could care less if any of them walked outside and got hit by a car.”

What was shocking to me was not his statement, but that he admitted it.  He was not a very nice person, but he was so confident that he could admit it and not care what people thought about him.

This CEO started with a few people and built a publicly-traded company.  As could be expected, he’s not good at maintaining long-term relationships with most of his employees.  Once they figure him out, they move on.  He can’t be trusted; I’ve seen him break contracts that he signed, but later decided not to honor.  Plus, every few months, the company had a new strategy.

Nonetheless, he’s been successful if judged only in terms of building a company and creating wealth.  He has the smarts, he’s crafty and he has tremendous confidence.

That caused me to think about what the characteristics of a successful leader are.  There are thousands of books on the topic.  If you google “what makes a good leader,” in a fraction of a second, you get more than 1.5 million entries.

Having been an attorney who’s worked with hundreds of companies and in leadership roles myself, what I’ve learned is that there is no one type of leader.  No one combination of characteristics exists that leads to the corner office at the top of the skyscraper.

Vision is overrated.  It’s important, but once you have the vision, you need to be able to act on it.  This requires a certain amount of organization – the ability to get things done.  You need ambition, so that you actually do act on it.  And you have to make people believe in you; that’s where the confidence comes in.  Plus, there are a few other traits that the books mention, such as keeping cool under pressure and making tough decisions on time, among others.

Yet good leaders come in a myriad of combinations.  What works in one organization or situation may utterly fail in another.  So to say that there’s any one, two, five or ten characteristics that define a leader is wrong because the mix of traits or lack of any one trait depends on the company, the circumstances and the individuals involved in the endeavor.

A difference exists, though, between leaders and those that stand out as great leaders.  The great ones I’ve met have the ability to listen, and let people feel like they’ve been listened to.

And I do think integrity is critical.  The CEO I mention above was successful, but was constantly losing good people.  Had he kept them, his company would have been much larger and much more profitable.

General Colin Powell offers some good thoughts in this leadership primer.

Integrity in Business

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Honesty is the only way to get aheadand stay therein the business world. This sounds like common sense, but it’s surprising how many people don’t understand it, from the juniormost employee to the Chief Executive Officer.

Developing a reputation for being an honest and trustful person is the most valuable asset you have. Without it, all the intelligence or assets you have are meaningless. Contracts, for example, are based on trust. While a written contract should includes protections against disagreements between the parties, few will sign a contract if they expect to end up in litigation because of a a trust issue.

Here’s a situation I know of where trust became a major issue in a mid-sized company. After a merger, the CEO wanted to cut costs. He told an executive to reduce a manager’s pay by 20%. The manager, a popular and effective employee, was in a bind for personal reasons, so she reluctantly accepted the pay reduction. When the CEO heard that the pay reduction was accepted, he told the executive to fire the manager.

Getting rid of the manager had been the CEO’s goal, but the way he did it was dishonest. When word of this incident traveled through the company, it unnerved people. Some of them were shocked at what had happened. The CEO’s action’s didn’t just affect the one individual, it lowered morale among many other employees. Within a couple of months, several key executives and managers left.

The CEO achieved the result he wanted, which was to terminate the manager, but at a great cost to the company. He could have achieved the same result, but if he handled the situation in an honest manner, the effect on others would’ve been greatly diminished.

Trust can be the hardest thing to build, but it’s so easy to lose.

Emailing Bad News…The Sandwich Approach

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I’ve previously written that communication in writing is the worst way to communicate. But what if you have to communicate that way and on top of that, you have bad news to deliver? Whether in a letter or an email, one technique can make the bad news a little less disheartening.

Write your message like a sandwich. Put the bad news in the middle. If you can find some good news to start with, and end with a positive tone, then it makes the bad news easier to consume.

This method isn’t the only way to deliver bad news in writing. Another way is as an open-faced sandwich, with the bad news in the beginning, but with positive reinforcement thereafter. Here’s an example of that approach, in a rejection letter to a candidate for a law clerkship:

“Although I am unable to offer you a position, I very much appreciate the interest you expressed in a clerkship with me. Your talent is evident, and I regret that demands on my time precluded an interview with you.

With best wishes for a rewarding career in the law….”

Sam Walton’s 10 Rules for Success

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

In 1962, Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart. He built it into the largest retail company in the world. He had 10 rules for success….

Rule #1
Commit to your business. Believe in it more than anything else. If you love your work, you’ll be out there every day trying to do the best you can, and pretty soon everybody around will catch the passion from you – like a fever.

Rule #2
Share your profits with all your associates, and treat them as partners. In turn, they will treat you as a partner, and together you will all perform beyond your wildest expectations.

Rule #3
Motivate your partners. Money and ownership aren’t enough. Set high goals, encourage competition and then keep score. Make bets with outrageous payoffs.

Rule #4
Communicate everything you possibly can to your partners. The more they know, the more they’ll understand. The more they understand, the more they’ll care. Once they care, there’s no stopping them. Information is power, and the gain you get from empowering your associates more than offsets the risk of informing your competitors.

Rule #5
Appreciate everything your associates do for the business. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.

Rule #6
Celebrate your success and find humour in your failures. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Loosen up and everyone around you will loosen up. Have fun and always show enthusiasm. When all else fails put on a costume and sing a silly song.

Rule #7
Listen to everyone in your company, and figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the front line – the ones who actually talk to customers – are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there. You’d better find out what they know.

Rule #8
Exceed your customer’s expectations. If you do they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want – and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them. Make good on all your mistakes, and don’t make excuses – apologize. Stand behind everything you do. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed’ will make all the difference.

Rule #9
Control your expenses better than your competition. This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. You can make a lot of mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

Rule #10
Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction.

Employee Morale: Sometimes the Little Things Make a Big Difference

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Little things can sometimes make a big difference in company morale. It’s not all about compensation and perks.

An example of this is what I did at E-Solutions Integrator, a startup at which I was COO. e-SI, a technology services / software development firm, was born during the Internet boom. Our employees were working long hours and were doing a great job in helping to build the company.

Early on, when we had 20-25 employees, I bought a gross of movie tickets. I wrote a personal note to each employee about their contribution, how they individually had made a difference to the company, and how much their efforts were appreciated. I enclosed a couple of movie tickets with each note.

I walked through the office and spoke with each individual, and handed them the personal note. This was something I’d done on a whim, and I didn’t expect the response. It really made a difference, and I saw a lot of big grins. Months later, some of the personal notes were still pinned up in employees’ cubes. It took little effort on my part, but was a big boost to morale during busy, demanding times.

Communication in Your Company

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Communication is critical to all of life’s relationships. Anytime two or more people are involved in a common endeavor or activity, a potential for miscommunication exists. And if the potential is there, it may well happen—that’s Murphy’s Law.

While it’s not typically a major focus when starting a company like sales, finance or the other functional areas, it is critical to success. As the organization grows, careful and clear communication among the company’s employees will make or break the company, especially if it is going through hard times or is operating during a time of market turmoil.

During my career, I’ve advised hundreds of clients ranging from tiny operations to global giants. What’s separated the great from the mediocre companies, regardless of size, has been the employees’ ability to communicate effectively.

For example, many companies develop a mission and key goals. Sometimes, they’re posted on a website, in an employee handbook or in the front lobby. Sometimes, they can be found only in the head of the company’s founder. Typically, company missions and critical drivers are not communicated or not communicated well to employees. As a result, employees can end up working towards different ends and at odds with each other.

Here are some practical tips for better company communication:

  • Focus on what is important to your company—mission and goals—regularly in company meetings. You have to repeat this information over and over and over; it can take a long time to sink in. You want everyone on the same train going down the same tracks.
  • You’ll gain trust by sharing knowledge than by hoarding information.
  • If you have bad news, it’s better to let your employees know than have rumor and uncertainty eat away at your company’s morale. Keeping Morale Up When Your Business is Down goes into more detail on this.
  • Communication in person is best.
  • Communication by video is second best.
  • Communication by telephone is third best.
  • Communication by written word is the least best way to relate to someone. Words, without visual or oral clues, are easily misinterpreted. Who among us has not ended up in a series of email or text exchanges that became angrier, misinterpreted or confused because of miscommunication?