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Entries in leadership (50)

Monday
Oct272014

Why I Missed the Real Value of Business Coaches

The term “coach” evokes someone with experience in a specific sport or activity. A coach has done or studied intensively—and over an extended period of time—a specific field and shares this particular expertise with others.

I have a boxing coach. I have had a running coach. I can understand why people hire coaches for childbirth. Also for weight loss and nutrition.

But a “business coach?”

Business has too many nuances and implications. A person doesn’t claim to have history expertise—she professes specific knowledge in an era or geographic region (and probably both). You can’t have a “sports coach.” That just doesn’t make any sense.

Although all areas of business have overlap, the general field has too much breadth and depth for any one person to coach in all its facets. Wooing from business coaches with backgrounds in supply-chain management for manufacturing or franchise management—two real-life examples—puzzled me.

I figured that, someday, when it made sense or the need grew acute, I’d hire a business coach with highly specialized expertise in a field or area in which I could use improvement. (I have plenty of those.) Once I got up to speed, we’d wrap. Down the line, perhaps I’d need a different type of business coach for strengthening another facet.

Maybe I still will.

And when I do, I’ll call her “coach.” Yet recent experience has taught me that the term misrepresents the real value of many professionals classed in the category.

We need to find a new term. Adviser? Confidant? Guide?

I’ll go with adviser. Because I’ve hired one, and now I see what I’ve missed. (And it isn’t coaching.)

Sounding Board

Executives don’t have natural in-office sounding boards.

When you hire a business coach, you hire someone under strict confidentiality who stands outside your organization. She has no taste for your company's particular flavor of politics. Having “inside information” doesn’t give her currency with her coworkers.

Further, she doesn’t need to see you resolute at all times. You can have wobbly moments—you won’t shake your team's mission-critical confidence in the company or its leadership or direction by debating a decision with her or expressing to her your frustration and uncertainty.

Perspective

A business adviser has worked with a number of other executives. Many good ones have done so for years.

She may not have exact knowledge of your specific type of business, products, or areas of improvement—as would someone I’d agree to call a “coach”—but she has walked through a number of challenges with a number of people similar to you. She can suggest resources she’s seen others use. She can suggest avenues of thought that she’s seen work elsewhere.

She can comfort you that others have gone through the same challenges and survived (yes, sometimes we CEOs wonder)—and even thrived. And she can congratulate you when you achieve a “win” that your employees would simply take for granted, because she’s watched you and potentially others struggle over the same mountain.

Me, Me, Me

Friends who work with psychologists say that one of the pleasures of therapy is having a set time period in which you guiltlessly talk about yourself with someone who focuses on nothing but you.

A business adviser provides the same outlet.

I have fantastic accountability partners, though our sessions rarely focus solely on me. Instead, we support each other in achieving our goals. I gain from helping them as much as I get from their support. I value them highly and that won’t change.

Yet I’ll confess: Talking through something without any expectation of reciprocity feels really, really nice. In fact, simply knowing I have an adviser if needed gives a sense of relief.

Have you hired a business coach? What did you experience?

Wednesday
Oct152014

Firing from the Firer's Perspective

People don’t have much sympathy for people who fire other people. Certainly, as someone who has had to fire others, I don’t expect any sympathy. Not from the person in question, not from anyone they know, and not even from the general public.

I don’t need to explain why.

First, even if the decision came via general consensus, everyone shoots the messenger. When something hurts, you lash out at the closest possible outlet to deflect the hurt. Further, fewer people have firing authority than the general population, so anyone who fires has the wrath of the masses against him. After all, if you haven’t had to fire someone, you don’t have the full picture. (And you may feel quite glad that you don't. I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone.)

I’ve had new managers preparing for their first firings come to me to discuss the big events. I’ve had people ask me about the firing experience out of curiosity.

Clearly, the world out there wonders: What happens? What’s it like?

Firing Someone Feels Awful, No Matter the Reason

Dismissing someone from his job feels like murder even if he’s done something so egregious that the firing is “for cause”—which means, basically, that he’s broken a very clear ethical or legal rule.

And even when you’ve talked to the person numerous times about performance issues—making the dismissal not for cause but due to poor job fit—firing someone feels like a drive-by shooting.

The Dismissal Lead-up

Often, when you’ve finally admitted that you need to fire someone, you’ve avoided the decision for a long time—too long.

The decision feels so awful and you feel so badly about it that you’ve either tried to help the person even when he shows no sign of performance improvement or you’ve given up on coaching and simply continued to put off the final decision, thinking that more pressing matters take priority. (And perhaps they do. But personnel issues should never take too far a back seat to other workplace agendas.)

Once you’ve made the decision, you’ll lose sleep.

You won’t have anyone within the company who has the full picture to talk to about the decision or the coming action, as you shouldn’t gossip about such serious matters. You’ll fret it over in your mind nearly constantly, wondering what to say, how to say it, and how the person in question will respond.

You’ll have trouble functioning normally. You should move as quickly as possible in carrying through the firing, because the person still directly reporting to you will sense trouble.

Besides, you can’t give him anything to do.

Making the Cut

Ever made plans to meet a significant other to end the relationship?

In the hours before the dismissal, just as you felt before the breakup, you’ll feel pervasive anxiety. During the firing, you’ll feel the same clenched, nauseated gut. Later that day, still shaken, you will drive the wrong way down a one-way street that you’ve navigated successfully daily for over a decade, as I did the last time I had to fire someone.

Firing Someone Never Gets Easier

Likely, you’ve worked alongside this person for a long time. You know him, his life, and the consequences of his dismissal to his existence beyond the office. You wish he hadn’t done whatever he's done—or that he'd do whatever you need him to do in terms of performance—to remove the need for his dismissal.

You wish you didn't have to fire him.

If you can fire someone easily, without a qualm or even a moment of fleeting emotion, you’ve become too desensitized. You’ve become the police officer who has seen too much wrong in the world, making everything look suspect. You’ve turned into the physician who has seen too much death, making patients not people, but charts and numbers.

I try to minimize the need for firing. I’d rather never, ever do it. But into every manager’s life, a firing will fall. And it will hurt.

And perhaps knowing that it hurts us, the firers, will make the people who’ve gotten dismissed feel just a slight bit better.

Have you ever fired someone? Share your experience.

Thursday
Jul312014

The Dangerous Cult of Personality

An entrepreneur reached out to me last week for guidance on a fundraising pitch deck. Prior to presenting to additional groups of potential investors, he wanted a casual opinion from someone who’d seen a lot of pitch presentations.

How could he make it more compelling? How could he better explain what he does and its opportunity in the market?

He has a profitable business in operation for a few years. Based on a quick conversation and high-level presentation, he has a solid vision for his venture’s future. Although investors have reason for wariness about his industry, based on slow user adoption to date, he has compelling data to show that the space has reached an inflection point: Consumer sentiment has evolved, creating the critical mass of interest needed. And his company stands as buyers’ only option.

All he needs: Cash.

Sounds great, right? What stuck in my craw?

Charisma. Or the lack of it.

Selling consumes a considerable portion of a CEO’s career. Some must sell their products and services to end users and potential investors. Many must raise money—whether in exchange for goods and services or for equity—which requires high-energy sales skills. Further, chief executives need to sell their ideas to employees, potential employees, business partners, and shareholders.

And in sales, the cult of personality trumps all.

The charisma requirement provides further proof that the good struggles to rise above the mediocre when the latter has high-powered boosters behind it, whether through personality, marketing, branding, or all of the above. Low-key, quiet types who just want to do good work—not promote, persuade, and energize—have a serious disadvantage.

People want wowing. Wooing.

People buy from people they like and who impress them. They don’t buy the idea or even the person—not his intrinsic skills or value—but how he comes across through interaction.

People back the rider, not the horse.

Too easily can presentation skills trick us into looking in one direction when we should look at something else. How many politicians would serve the public incredibly well—if only they could truly campaign? How many people will back a company in the red with poor prospects in an industry saturated with competitors and a dazzling CEO over my more low-key contact, who has a far better horse?

When one skill set doesn’t necessary complement or even feed into another, weighting the ability to sell more heavily than job skills leads to unfortunate choices.

Could the entrepreneur hire a branding and marketing firm? Yep—with the funds, which he needs to raise. Could he hire a coach? Sure, but coaches can only get you so far. Could he hire an executive—for equity—who has the needed personality? Certainly. After all, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak partnered to create Apple for the same reason. Yet hiring someone for a forward-facing role and giving him ownership requires a big and treacherous step for a business owner.

Some people would argue that leaders need big personalities for success, which means that betting on the best salesperson makes the most sense. Others have indicated that strong, silent types have led the most successful ventures. 

What say you?

How do you feel about the cult of personality?

Monday
Jul072014

Corporate America has a Burn-out Problem

Worn, dried husks of employees have existed since the first person agreed to do a job for a wage—or a meal. Over all these years of hiring, I’ve seen plenty of exhausted staffers looking for a safe haven somewhere, anywhere.

Yet I haven’t seen anything before like what I’ve seen in interviews these last few months. Every single person I’ve screened or interviewed has given hint to exhaustion. Midlevel executives rarely ask so many pointed questions about company culture, office hours, and work-life balance.

Delving into the rationale behind these interviewees’ concerns turned up the following surprising examples of companies pushing employees too far:

  • One candidate asked if we allow staff to take lunch, as she found it efficient to run errands at midday. When pressed, she explained that her previous employer forbade lunches outside the office. She’d lost ten pounds, but not in the way she’d wanted.
  • After explaining that she would not have phone or e-mail connectivity on Sunday after 10 a.m., one candidate’s boss asked if he should question “her commitment to the company.” His snipe seemed highly unjust, as she had completed two all-nighters the week before to ready the organization for an event.
  • A senior professional left an executive role at a major public company because the organization kept her on the road six days a week for over a decade working twelve-plus-hour days.
  • A candidate asked whether we’d allow her to volunteer one night a week, for which she would need to leave the office by 7 p.m. When I expressed surprise that anyone would take issue with such a request, she explained that her current employer frowned on leaving the office before 7, even if the team had completed its work for the day.

Sadly, when I related these stories to my staff, they said I had no idea how bad it has gotten out there. (After all, I’ve worked at FrogDog since 1997.) They said corporations have asked people to do ever more with ever less—and that they see no signs of relief ahead.

Scary.

Burned-out staff has lower productivity—and lower morale. Further, people’s creative thinking, problem solving abilities, and interpersonal skills suffer when they haven’t had time to rest, rejuvenate, and refresh. And burned-out staff often leave, which increases costs (recruiting, interviewing, training, orientation, ramp-up), damages company culture, and further lowers productivity.

People like to work hard. People like to achieve. And sometimes working your tail off to nail a big project feels like as monumental a challenge and achievement as climbing Mount Everest. Yet people can’t climb Mount Everest every day—no matter how fit. Their bodies can’t sustain the intense physical effort. The constant intense focus exhausts their minds. They get bored, frustrated, angry, and irritated. Why this? Why again? Remind me why I do this?

By all means, ask your team to go all out when warranted. But how often do circumstances truly warrant an all-out level of effort? You do your team a disservice by expecting all-out work all the time. And in ill-serving your team, you damage your company as well.

How does your company keep people from burnout—or does it?

Tuesday
Jun032014

The Problem with Working Remotely

Technology has made it possible for us to work from anywhere.

And sometimes, working away from the office makes more sense than working in the office—and not only when business requires travel. The ability to work from home when waiting for a repairman, to escape to a library or coffee shop when you need to get away to focus, to move outside to jog the creative brain, and to attend family emergencies while still accomplishing critical business objectives has increased productivity and flexibility.

Yet working remotely too often causes significant problems:

  • Learning: When people work remotely, they can’t exchange hard or soft skills through natural association. As guiding someone who works remotely takes extra time, energy, and thought in an era when everyone works quickly, your coworkers won’t enlist your help on an effort unless you already have direct experience with the work. Further, people working remotely can’t learn through experiencing how others handle issues. Once, an employee told me that watching and hearing me interact with clients gave her some of her most valued early-career lessons.
  • Training: Most formal and informal training on hard skills happens during the workday, in the office. Although your employer may not require you to undergo it, do you really want to lose the opportunity to pick up new and needed expertise?
  • Teambuilding: Can you create teams and feel part of teams when you never see or work alongside your teammates? When never at the office, can you fully experience the buzz and collective energy of a group working toward a common goal? Perhaps sometimes—but only with conscious effort that you could better expend elsewhere.
  • Culture: Often, companies offer a number of perks for employees—lunches, treats, games, surprises—that people working remotely won’t experience. Further, working remotely thwarts your role in creating and experiencing the corporate culture. Corporate culture draws employees. If your company can’t attract great new staff, you’ll hurt your own chances for career expansion by hampering the company’s growth—and you’ll never get effective help with your expanding to-do list.
  • Out of Sight, out of Mind: As I said in my article on Melissa Mayer’s move to stop telecommuting at Yahoo!, if no one regularly sees and speaks with you, no one will think to give you the sweet assignments. Good for your career? Nope.

If your company allows flexibility in your work locale, take advantage of the perk—but don’t limit yourself through working remotely more often than necessary. Pay attention to when and how the benefits of working remotely outweigh the negatives for your career and personal growth.

Finding the right balance for you—which differs between industries, companies, and roles—proves the trick and the challenge.

For your career, what constitutes the right remote work−office work balance?