People Power - August/September 2006

By Scott Humphrey

As I prepared for a recent internal training session at Shaw, I followed a ritual that has become commonplace for me. I called several of the key interest holders in the meeting. One conversation that stands out from the rest was when I asked a top executive what expectations he has of our leaders. His reply didn’t surprise me. He said, “Leaders must be willing to do what others are not willing to do and to make the decisions that others are not willing to make. It’s what we pay them to do.” 

I couldn’t say it better. I feel so strongly about this that I consider any lack of the courage to make those decisions that he talked about the missing link in leadership.

Maybe it’s our era of political correctness, but there is an epidemic of weakness when it comes to managers who are willing to have the difficult conversations that are required of leaders. Let me restate that. There is an epidemic of weakness when it comes to managers who are willing to have the difficult conversations that are required of leaders with the appropriate party. Oh, they’re having the conversation. In many cases the only person they are not telling is the one who is responsible. I am amazed at the number of managers who lay awake at night pondering how to deal with a particular situation or person. They’ll consider any solution short of confronting that person. The reasons vary from being uncomfortable with the other person’s reaction to feeling unqualified to address performance, character, or the person’s impact on the team. Let me just go out on a limb and say: You can’t be a leader if you are not willing to be a leader of candor.

Years ago in his training program, Practical Sales Management, Stephen Brown told the story of his own failure to address inadequate performance. He said his company had a standard that communicated acceptable levels of performance and corrective action if performance was not maintained. If a person’s performance was below budget for three consecutive months, the company would address the issue with that individual and address what the company could do to help that person get back on track. If the failure to meet budget continued for three additional months, the result would be immediate termination.

Brown had a friend who worked for his organization. He knew the man’s wife and ten kids. When his friend’s performance dropped for three consecutive months, he was called in and asked what the company could do to help him get back on track. His friend offered some excuses, but as is often the case, claimed no ownership of the problem. Three months later there had been no turnaround. The standard was clear. He should terminate his friend, but Brown said he couldn’t do it. He just kept thinking about the man’s wife and ten kids.

This continued month after month. Brown was ridiculed by other managers for not holding to the standards that he himself had created. Finally his friend called him and asked if they could travel together. Brown said he thought the guy was going to quit, to do his job for him. So he traveled with his underperforming employee and friend. Finally after traveling all day with no hint of why he had been asked, Brown followed his friend up to his room and said, “You called me to come and travel with you so you could talk with me about something. Now what is it?” His friend replied, “This is hard for me. You have been so good to me. I wanted to let you know that I’m leaving . . . my wife and kids. I’ve fallen in love with someone else.” 

Brown said he realized three things immediately. First, he cared more about his friend’s wife and ten kids than his friend did. Secondly, if he had done his job and held his friend to the company standard, he wouldn’t have had time to fall in love with someone else. Third, Brown confessed that he failed as a leader by attempting to carry his friend. 

I believe most managers have it wrong. They dread the difficult conversation when they have to address someone’s performance, character, or impact on the team. Leaders understand that the easiest way not to have this difficult conversation is to constantly communicate the acceptable standard and be consistent in enforcing it.

When standards are understood, a leader doesn’t fire low performers; they fire themselves by not performing to the required level.

Here are a few questions to ponder:
• What are the standards of your organization?
• Do your people know the standard? How do you know?
• Are you and your managers consistent in modeling and candid in enforcing the standard?

In the May 2006 issue of Training Magazine, Jack Welch says “If you’re a manager, you have a major obligation to let everyone in your organization know exactly where they stand at all times . . . candor eliminates surprises. Candor will make life a lot easier for everybody, and it’ll improve performance dramatically.”

It’s time for leaders to step up. You don’t do anyone a favor by refusing to address issues of performance. Our unwillingness to do so destroys our credibility with those who are looking for leaders who will truly lead. I challenge you to look at those you lead. Then ask yourself these questions:

1. Are they on the right bus? (Should they be employed here?)

2. Are they on the right seat on the bus? (Am I utilizing their strengths in their current position to have the maximum impact on them and the organization?)

3. Have I done everything I can to empower them to perform?

4. Have I displayed the courage to have the difficult conversation?

It’s my hope that you will accept my challenge to be a leader of candor in all aspects of your life: at home and at work. 

Copyright 2006 Floor Focus Inc

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc.