Leadership

new socks: the last post you ever need to read about Zappos

I ordered several pairs of running socks from Zappos last night and am pretty jazzed about it (it’s the little things that make a good life, right?). After I clicked the purchase button, it struck me – why are there any articles written about Zappos?

The internet is awash with articles and posts about the online shoe store, but why? Yes, they operate differently, but it’s not like it’s hard to figure why that difference works so well. Zappos makes it supereasy to purchase a huge variety of shoes, etc. at reasonable prices with zero risk that it won’t fit or you won’t like it, and deliver them quicker than should be possible. If anything does go wrong, they immediately bend over backwards to more than make it right. Their entire company – every process and system and policy – exists to enable a great customer experience and somehow the business world is surprised that Zappos has an enthusiastic (fanatical?) customer base lining up to give them money. Who knew that people might want to do business with a company that treats them well?

Are we in the business world truly that thick?

But what about their culture?” some might ask. “They have a unique culture and are so successful, shouldn’t we try to figure out how to copy them? What about all their employees with blue hair coming to work in their pajamas? That’s weird isn’t it? Shouldn’t all us business and HR types be discussing how awesome/strange/wonderful/it-will-never-work that is? Shouldn’t we be desperately trying to figure out how to bring the Zappos culture and magic into our workplaces?

As near as I can tell with my very low level of expertise (I once toured their HQ and I have bought some stuff from them), their unique culture and the unique results it creates is based on two things: 1) customer experience is everything; and 2) the customer experience will never exceed the employee experience (they don’t say it that way, they just live it). They commit to hiring great people who want to provide an amazing experience for customers and then create a work environment where those employees can and are expected to do just that. Create a great employee experience and the employees will create a great customer experience.

It’s an embarrassingly simple and devastatingly, disruptively effective approach. And, most businesses predictably ignore it. Puttnam’s Law tells us it’s better to fail doing what everyone else is doing than to succeed by doing different.

Sure, we could build a business around the customer and employee experience. Or, we could just keep on doing what we’ve been doing, keep getting the same results, and read some more articles about what Zappos.

 

first day jitters

“Will I like it here?”

“Is this going to be a good year?”

“Will I like the person in charge?”

“I wonder what the people sitting around me are like?”

“Where will I put my stuff?”

“Where are the bathrooms?”

“Is lunch any good here?”

“I hope work will be interesting.”

“Did I wear the right clothes? I wonder what others are wearing?”

“How early is too early to show up? How late is too late?”

“How long will it take to get there?”

“I don’t want to be here.”

“Will I make any friends?”

“Should I have styled my hair different? My hair never looks right.”

“Which door am I supposed to go in?”

“Wonder what I should do first when I get there?”

“Is anyone else new here today?”

“Hope I don’t do anything that makes me look stupid.”

“Should I have brought anything else?”

“My stomach hurts.”

“I hope they like me.”

 

First day of school at 8 years old or first day of work at 56, it’s all the same. Insecurities, doubt, and “what if…?” questions loom large.  I wonder what the answers will be.

judging performance

My daughter was a little dismayed and disappointed to discover that I’m not being evaluated by judges when I speak at conferences. It’s funny to think about, but how would she know different? She knows the emphasis and worry I put on doing great presentations and given the popularity of contest shows like America’s Got Talent and Last Comic Standing it’s probably very natural to assume I’d be in front of HR’s versions of Howard Stern or Rosanne. It would certainly change the flavor of conferences if the presenters got immediate, constructive feedback from a panel of judges.

It is fashionable right now to declare the demise of the performance appraisal. The logic seems to be a combination of: 1) we need feedback more than once a year; 2) many managers are terrible at it; 3) people don’t like being evaluated. But, killing off the appraisal because we need more feedback is sort of like ending Christmas because we believe people should be nice to each other more than just during the holiday season. I fail to see how doing less solves the problem of needing more. And, regardless of format or frequency, providing feedback is a core function of the manager’s job so it’s probably time to just go ahead and get good at it. Likewise, when we’re getting paid to do work it’s hardly unreasonable that we’re expected to do it correctly (and maybe even improve) so receiving feedback is just part of being employed.

Can we do performance appraisals (lots) better. Absolutely! Can we completely eliminate them? I’m not yet convinced. Can we completely overhaul the entire format? Probably need to.

My daughter’s confusion got me thinking. What if performance appraisals were done by a panel of judges? Seems to fit in with the American reality TV ethos.  Of course, few jobs could be accurately judged by a group of impartial outsiders and almost no one would want to hear their performance appraisal in front of the entire company. So, as amusing as it is to consider, that’s probably out.

Yet, feedback from several perspectives is useful. So perhaps it’s a manager and two or three peers. Co-workers generally know the true performance far better than the manager, especially if we evaluate interpersonal/team skills. It should be pretty easy for performance management software to randomly assign appraisals to peers and keep the feedback anonymous. Need to do appraisals more than once a year? Great, how’s quarterly, monthly, weekly?

The technology is there. Back in May, Workforce reported that companies such as Facebook and Hewlett-Packard are essentially crowdsourcing performance data on a continual basis. I suppose it’s similar to how companies are continuously gathering customer feedback. (It also allows companies to eliminate HR as a gatekeeper to performance management – I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.)

But technology can’t do what we need most. To have direct, human, ongoing discussions with people about what they’re doing well and what they need to do better. The interesting thing about the TV shows with panels of judges is watching how much the surviving performers improve over the course of the show by using the feedback they receive week after week. Beyond all the drama, cut-to-commercial, spectacle, there is solid, honest here’s-what-you-did-well-and-here’s-how-you-can-do-better feedback. We all need that.

bold

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Boldness does not come easily or naturally. Although we admire boldness, we humans struggle against it. We weave boldness into myth and legend, make a virtue of it, then actively discourage it. We celebrate boldness while striving to blend in out of fear of standing out.

One of the biggest societal sins we can commit is simply non-conformity. Standing out. Being different. We humans are wary of differences and look for anything telling that’s out of the norm. It creates a division, a wedge, an “us vs them” schism with those around us. It announces, “I am not one of you.”

Even those who rebel against the majority tend to conform to the rules and norms of their own group. The most rebellious are sometimes the most conservative of all. The biker or punk rocker or hipster programmer has just as many unspoken rules about what to wear, where to live, and what to drive as the banker or lawyer or accountant.

The penalties for standing out range from being ignored with the cold shoulder to being discredited and marginalized to being cast out, ostracized. The instinct to punish or reject anyone different persists so well and so strong we’ve had to create laws to prevent discrimination on the can’t-be-helped differences.

But what about the can-be-helped differences? Those who choose the non-conformity of being bold? Those heretics who bring different perspectives or dare to argue against the Truths of Best Practices? For those who aren’t doing as well as we are we point, criticize, and judge their non-conformity as evidence of inferiority. If they are doing better than us, we complain, resent, and discredit.

Yet, no person or organization ever stood out by being the same. No one ever got ahead by holding back. The world has never been changed by those wrapped in the warm, safe blanket of average. The joke is on use as we laugh when they go against the conventional wisdom that no longer works and we continue to predict their failure as they go about succeeding.

Boldness exists as a virtue in myth and legend, but in the everyday it’s easier and safer to say “no” than “yes”. More prudent to replicate the past than create the future. We seek to offend no one and become offensively inoffensive. Our businesses, our actions, our lives look like everyone else’s around us. We choose safe over meaningful, stable over fulfilling, secure over interesting, known over bold. And it’s keeping us trapped.

Bold fails. Bold succeeds. Bold is colorful. Bold is never boring. Bold is courageous. Bold risks. Bold leaps. Bold opens itself up to failure for the freedom and joy of the opportunity. Bold creates. Bold is a spark, a moment, a conviction, an inspiration. Bold is tenacious persistence. Bold is meaningful. Bold is unique. Bold is crazyscaryjoyful.

We need more bold.

the three guaranteed new secrets of ancient best practices

Some days it’s all about the headlines isn’t it? A catchy, grabby declaration meant to attract eyeballs and wallets. There is so much content – so much content competing for your time and attention – that the headlines have become formulaic in their attempt to stand out.

“The”. We humans like to know there is definitive certainty. No wishy-washy possibilities or discussion here. This article is all about chiseled in stone absoluteness.

“Three”.  We also like definitive numbers. It tells us right up front that there is only a certain amount of info being discussed. Interestingly, the number is either single digit or a fairly high double-digit. Seven is fine, sixty-three is fine, fourteen just doesn’t work.

“Guaranteed”. Who doesn’t love a good guarantee. This is proof it works right? Um, sure. The most relevant legal definition from Law.com is: a promise to make a product good if it has some defect. Most often, if something you purchase doesn’t work, the guarantee would be for money-back, repair, or replacement. How much did you pay for the blog post? If it doesn’t work, how much recourse do you have? Yep, zilch. I guarantee it. A great, sounds good, but meaningless word.

“New”. Yep, none of those old ideas for me, thank you very much.  What? You mean I shouldn’t be a complete jackass as a manager if I want people to care about their jobs, I shouldn’t eat more than I burn off if I want to lose weight, and I shouldn’t drive like a teenage boy late for a first date if I want to save fuel? I know that already (even if I don’t do it, like, ever). No, tell me something new. And make it a…

“Secrets”. This goes right along with “new”. There will never be a blog post, article, or book titled, “Common Sense Stuff That Everyone Already Knows”. And the secrets must be either so hot off the press that the ink smears, or they better be…

“Ancient”. Yep, old. Been around for years and recently recovered from the mists of time. But not twenty years old, more like 200+. Bonus points if you connect it to a revered, yet mysterious people from: a) a long time ago; and/or b) far, far away. Tibetan monks, Peruvian priests, Spartan warriors. Tailored to the topic of course. “Leadership Secrets of the Viking Berserkers” would sell like water in the Sahara, but “Human Resource Secrets of the Druids” might not work so well.

“Best Practices”. This is the greatest term ever invented for selling ideas, because it looks buzzwordy, businessy, and authoritative, yet is essentially meaningless. It sounds like it means cutting edge, but it really means status quo. “Best practices” is more eye-catching than “currently fashionable ideas” or “the stuff we’re doing today that seems to work OK, but we’ll look back upon in fifteen years and face palm ourselves in sheer embarrassment.” Interestingly, these best practices can contradict other best practices in the same site or magazine and no one seems to notice or care.

The best part is the topic at hand doesn’t matter. Not a bit. It’s common across every professional, enthusiast, and tabloid subject I’ve seen. Unfortunately, using or not using these secret (ha!) headline best practices (ha!) is no guarantee (ha!) of quality. Some great articles use them and some don’t. Some horrendously vapid and vacant articles use them and some don’t.  But the trite articles trending through the interwebs? Definitely.

 

should you become a manager, part II

Part 1 was a teensy bit tongue in cheek. I get concerned that we often only see the Hollywood aspect of leadership – power, money, cars, Donald Trump – and miss the daily, grinding realities of it. Being a leader is difficult and comes with a lot of downsides. Leadership also comes with several upsides that don’t get much press. They aren’t flashy and aren’t for everyone, but they are important.

1. As a leader, the culture of your team is up to you. It gets established and reinforced daily just by how you show up, how you interact, and how you make sure work gets done. You can make it a great place to be where people want to do their best.

2. You are crucial to your employees’ growth and development. Sure, they have to actually do the learning, but the tone you set determines how much importance they’ll place on development and what they get out of it. You also have a perspective they don’t have and are in a position to coach and foster their strengths and build on their, um, not-so-strengths. And, how you champion them in the company determines a big part of their career trajectory. Leaders with a reputation for developing great talent tend to stand out.

3. You determine the customer experience. Whether your customers are internal or external, how your team treats those customers will be a direct reflection of two things: 1) the expectations you set, model, and reinforce; and 2) how your employees get treated by you. I’m a firm believer in the adage: the customer experience rarely exceeds the employee experience. It’s easy to tell who has a great manager just by how the customer gets treated.

4. You get to solve bigger and more interesting problems. The TV version of leadership shows your problems getting smaller as you move up in the company. NOT TRUE. Everyone’s pay is ultimately based on the problems they are expected to solve. The bigger and more complicated, uncertain, and ambiguous problems you solve, the more you get paid. And, the more you get paid, the more challenging the problems are. For example, entry-level positions deal with problems that are simple and have pre-determined answers (e.g., scanning a product and giving change to customers) and executives deal with huge problems affecting the entire company where there aren’t obvious answers (e.g., determining the best balance of stability, profitability, and growth over the next five years and the best way to achieve that balance).

5. Leadership is knowing and working with people. Although leaders do deal with technical problems, the leader’s job has people at its core. Business gets done for, through, and by people and people are logical, irrational, funny, bitter, kind, mean, caring, apathetic, generous, selfish, and a whole bunch of other paradoxes operating at the same time. As a leader you are at the center of all that, juggling a thousand things, and trying to make sense of it all. Every day is different and every day brings fresh challenges.

The best part is you don’t need title to do any of this. Leadership is about influence; about bringing out the best in those around you. Some days a title helps, but there is nothing preventing you from setting great examples, treating teammates and customers well, encouraging other people’s development, and becoming known as a problem solver.

Should you be a leader? Yes, every day. Should you accept a job with a leadership title? That one’s up to you.

should you become a manager?

So you’ve been offered your first leadership role and you’re trying to decide whether or not to take it. Good, most people just grab on to any promotion they can get, but you’re taking a moment to think it out. Ask about your new responsibilities, ask about your new career path, ask about your pay raise. All good things to know, but there are a few important aspects to leadership people never seem to mention.

1. It’s now your fault. What’s that you say, you didn’t do it? It was one of your staff? Great, good to know. You’re still responsible. That’s right, you’re now accountable for other people’s mistakes.

2. Not everyone has your work ethic. Those lazy slackers you outworked right into your new promotion? It’s now your job to motivate them. You know how you take pride in never missing a day of work? Some of your team take pride in minimizing their days of work.

3. You’re now hated. To your team you are now one of them. People will talk about you, mock you behind your back, and worry about what you’re going to say to them. You remember what you used to tell your friends or family about what an idiot your boss was? You’re now that idiot in other people’s conversations.

4. The big problems are now yours. As a manager you will be delegating work to others and anytime it gets difficult they will hand it right back to you. Angry customer? You. Someone in another department is causing problems? You. Any other manager mad about someone on your team? You. Telling someone they have eye watering body odor, aren’t dressed appropriately, can’t have time off, and settling pre-school level arguments between employees. Yep, that’s all you.

5. You probably don’t really get paid more. Yes, there’s a bump in pay, but… probably not in line with the bump in responsibilities and headaches. But… you’re now expected to work more hours, which is great if you’re hourly but not if you’re salaried. But… if your new job switches you from hourly to salary you might even make less than you did before if you used to get regular overtime. A few more promotions and you will be making more, but not this first promotion.

6. You will probably stink as a manager. No one will tell you this, but it’s true. Leading and managing others is a very distinct skill set (with a whole bunch of new, fun legal issues) and you didn’t get promoted for your leadership skills. Think hard about that: you got promoted because you were really good at your old job, not because you are good at the things needed in your new job. It’s one of the few promotions where the responsibilities come on day one and the knowledge and skills come (much) later.

7. Meetings. Those team meetings you always hated? They’re yours to lead now. Oh, and you probably get to attend lots of new meetings you never knew existed. Good times.

8. HR is now your friend. Or your enemy. Either way, they will be more involved in your life so I suggest making them your friend.

Of course, there are some downsides to leadership also, but I’ll save those for another time. 😉

a brief introduction to leadership

A huge component of leadership is problem solving, which is about making decisions and taking action.

Leadership decisions are usually about difficult and ambiguous problems. There are almost always several reasonable decisions that could be made to solve any given problem.

The bigger, more complex, more innovative, or longer-term the decision, the harder it is to know if you’ve made the right decision.

No matter which direction you decide to go there will be a significant number of people who can reasonably argue you should have gone the other way.

The best decision is often just the decision that makes the most sense given the limited amount of information and resources available at the time. As soon as circumstances change, that decision will quickly become the wrong decision.

The right decision is often not the comfortable, easy, or popular decision. And the comfortable, easy, or popular is often not the right decision.

People will hate you for making the wrong decision or the decision that’s not theirs or the decision that involves any change or just for being the leader and they need someone to hate.

As leader you will be blamed for everything that goes wrong. And given minimal credit for what goes right.

Chances are, school has taught you business is about numbers, logic, fact, and figures. But it’s not. It’s about people.

It’s nearly impossible to lead people using numbers, logic, fact, and figures.

Good luck.

are you struggling to treat everyone fairly?

Intriguing question isn’t it? If you’re a leader you probably struggle with being fair. Some people earn the benefit of the doubt, some don’t. Some people you just click with, some you struggle to make any connection at all. Some look to you as a mentor, some will loathe you just because you’re their boss. And then, try as you might, you have your own issues and challenges going on. Your own struggles with your job and your boss and your personal life. Like every other human you have your good days and bad days, your moments of clear thinking and irrationality. Leadership is very, very difficult.

Fortunately, I can help. You see a catalog crossed my desk the other day and right on the inside cover there is a blurb that reads: Are you struggling to treat everyone fairly? Learn how lapel pins can make every individual feel acknowledged and special…

Um, yeah. Lapel pins. Every individual. All sorts of scenarios spring to mind:

  • “I always thought my manager was a chauvinistic bigot who played favorites but then he gave me a lapel pin and I realized how much I’d misjudged him.”
  • “I’ve been working long hours lately. Coming in early and going home late. My family barely recognizes me anymore. The worst of it was that no one at work seemed to care. Or even notice. But then my boss gave me a lapel pin and all that hard work was worth it.”
  • “I used to be what HR folks call ‘actively disengaged’. I spent more time and effort figuring out how to avoid working that I would have if I’d actually worked. On my best days I was just going through the motions. Then I got a lapel pin. That was the day my life changed.”

That’s the dream, isn’t it? That all the challenges and burdens of leadership can be lifted just by buying some stuff out of a catalog. It’s not that easy though, is it? The issues can’t be solved with a purchase order or a credit card.

If only…

I’m not dismissing the importance of rewards and recognition. I think it’s vitally important and visible symbols have a place it all of it, but they aren’t the whole thing. The symbols are a means – a tool – but not an end. Trophies and trinkets can be a link in the process and a piece of the overall program, but cannot stand alone or replace sincere conversation.

Recognition will never be once size fits all and leadership doesn’t come from a catalog.