Before you plunge ahead, perhaps you should look back

baseball-1487981_960_720Those are the words I said to one of my clients, an older and accomplished professional who was experiencing some difficulty in deciding what to do next in his career. My question to him?

Where have you enjoyed success in your career?

When he had time to reflect and respond, I explained. I use the word : “enjoyed” in two senses.  First in the sense that you…well… enjoyed it. The moments and circumstances brought a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. The second sense is that of realization, that the experience was not a failure but an overwhelming success.

Most people probably have fewer of those than the other kind, but without doubt it is the enjoyed successes that make things worthwhile. So, why did I ask my client what successes he had enjoyed and more importantly, why should you answer the same question?

First, because if you enjoy success it almost unpredictably indicates a perfect match between your skills, your personality, and the challenge. Most of us can do lots of things but we like to do only a few. Usually we like to do them because we are good at them and we are good at them because we like doing them.

Second, knowing what we like to do and coincidentally what we are good at is critical to more than finding success. It is necessary for continuing success. Therefore if we know what worked for us yesterday we can quite confidently what will work well tomorrow.

Third, decisions become simpler if not easier. It makes no sense to pursue avenues which lead us into places we are poorly-equipped to handle. True enough, we learn daily, but in this consideration we need not try to be all things to all people in all circumstances.

Finally, as leaders we can find others who can do what we cannot or what we would rather not. My client is very smart, brilliant in fact. He could doubtless learn to do more things but why should he? All successful and superlative leaders focus on what they and only they can do in their setting and find others to do everything else.

So, where have you enjoyed success? Why were those times successful? What did you learn about yourself in them? Having learned that, what does it tell you about your future?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of you have written to ask why I have not been posting for a while.  I cannot share details but on October 1st, 2015 a major medical event completely disrupted our household and my attention, time, and efforts have been consumed elsewhere. I am pleased to report that things are on the mend.

6 things you should NOT do when a customer complains

roach letterIn my last article I recounted the story of Mike (you can read the entire story here). Assuming you are the general manager of the store in which Mike’s story unfolded, we need to discuss what you would and should do.

But first, let’s look at what you should NOT do.

  1. You should NOT attribute Mike’s complaint to the odd and unusual circumstance. It is all too easy to simply disregard his complaint as being the result of something out of the ordinary. If it hasn’t happened before it will almost certainly happen again. Instead, take Mike seriously and respond accordingly.
  2. You should NOT blame the complainer. We’ve been in business long enough to know that not every complaint is valid and not every customer can be satisfied. But reality begins with the perceptions of others hot you. In fact, the most ineffective leaders always demonstrate a debilitating flaw, the belief that everything would be just fine if they saw things as they see them. It simply is imperative that effective leaders never blame the complainer for his or her perceptions because it is those perceptions that have defined and framed the conversation.
  3. You should NOT ignore it. Every person involved – the sales staff in the department Mike visited, the assistant manager he spoke with, and you, all need to know a complaint has been registered and that you do not indent to simply ignore it. Something happened somewhere and it needs to be fixed. It will not get better by itself.
  4. You should NOT follow up with a roach letter. For those outside the US, a “roach letter” might seem a puzzling term, but it stems from a complaint letter that an airline passenger sent to the headquarters of the airline following a flight he made on one of their planes. It seems that a passenger awakened from a nap to find a cockroach crawling down his cheek. Incensed, the passenger wrote a letter of complaint and received a prompt response. Unfortunately, inside the envelope the passenger found a note from someone in the airline’s customer service department that read, “Send this jerk the roach letter.” Roach letters fix nothing, reveal a terrible attitude, and will always ring insincere.
  5. You should not assume your employees will respond badly. Most sales people really do not like to miss out on sales and the incidence with Mike might have been a simple oversight or the result of being too task-oriented rather than people-(customer) oriented. One manager in a big box store ordered one of her top salesmen to stop processing contracts and start putting away stock. This is not unusual when there are lots of things to do but it is a pathetic waste of talent and expertise to divert the completion of sales (profit) toward housekeeping (overhead). Use your talent where they produce the most profit. Indeed, experience shows us that sales people resent being taken away from duties on the floor like meeting customers, selling products, closing on sales to do mundane tasks. If you workplace is structured by paying commissions it gets more imperative to allow the power of incentive to work. Let your sales people sell.

In the next post, we’ll discuss what you should do.

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You are NOT pre-enrolling and you are NOT paying for anything right now. This is just our way of saying thanks for being a reader of The Practical Leader.


Mike has filed a complaint. What would you do?

question marksHere’s the situation:

You are the general manager of a store that has three departments. Your store is one of more than a dozen similar sites the company owns and operates. You receive a call from the customer service department at the main corporate office.

A customer has called to complain about something that happened at your store. The customer, we’ll call him Mike, had visited there expecting to purchase a product. Entering the department where the product was located, he waited to place an order.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

According to the customer service rep, the would-be buyer said he waited 19 minutes in all. During that time, one sales rep that had been busy with another customer finished what he was doing with them and then simply left. The other sales rep walked in to the department and immediately began chatting with another company employee. Then the rep went behind the desk and began clicking on a computer. Both the first rep and the second had made eye contact with Mike but neither acknowledged his presence or walked the half-dozen steps over to where he shopped to assist.

Mike gave up. On his way out of the store, he encountered a department manager and recounted what had just happened to him. When Mike finished, the department manager said only one thing, “Okay.”

Mike made his purchase somewhere else.

Now, let’s say that you’re the general manager of that store and you just received the call from corporate customer service, what do you do?

Send your answer to or leave it as a comment below.

We’ll discuss the solution next week.


Attitudes of an effective delegator – Never sanction imcompetence

One-rotten-apple-spoils-the-Whole-BunchWhenever I hire a new employee, as part of their orientation I am always careful to emphasize that it would be a wrong to mistake my forbearance for indifference, that while I am long-suffering and will give them time to learn the ropes, there are standards to be reached and maintained.

One of the most ineffective positions leaders take is to sanction incompetence. Now by that I am not suggesting that there is no room for error or that no one is ever allowed to make mistakes. When we sanction incompetence we support or approve of a pattern of incompetence where incompetence is ‘manifesting the inability to carry out a task or responsibility.’ And we often sanction it.

How We Sanction Incompetence

  1. When one person is allowed substandard performance to continue unchecked. People will make mistakes; sometimes they make lots of them. We sanction incompetence when we do nothing about it.
  2. Allowing associates and employees to mistake forbearance for indifference. Again this calls for a response on our part. To do nothing is to manifest indifference.
  3. Failure to confront or reluctance to confront soon enough. Confrontation is never pleasant but it is part of the job. Everything we do messages something. Failure to address incompetence soon enough telegraphs to everyone that standards are negotiable. They aren’t or at least they shouldn’t be.
  4. Blindness to suckups and kissups. This seems to be a particular failing of leaders. And some associates are really good at it. But others can see it even if you can’t and the result is confusion, resentment, and loss of respect for us as leaders.
  5. Allowing personal relationships and feeling to cloud the nature of business. We are sometimes reluctant to deal with incompetence because the incompetent person is so nice. But we have objectives to reach and standards to maintain.
  6. Robbing strength to pay for weakness. This is particularly deadly. Effective delegators simply do not ever compensate for the failures of one by taking from another.

This is about being able to find others who will extend our reach, multiply our effectiveness, and divide our work. Incompetence compromises all three. Here is a list of 6 tests to determine if we are sanctioning incompetence:

Question #1 – Have you settled in your thinking and behavior that the demands and criteria you must establish are strictly business? You should possess with some reasonable clarity what will be the successful outcome of an employee’s engagement with your company. It might be easily measured by profit margins. It might be counted by widgets made in a measured amount of time. It might be in the capacity to determine what needs to be done and make sure it is done. A friend once recommended that I hire a friend of his because the man was having a hard time adjusting to adult life and needed a father figure to help him along. My response? My business is not a therapy center and I am not a therapist. Therapy is costly, too costly for me (or you) to absorb just to “help people along.” You are in business, your organization exists to pursue and eventually realize the stated objectives, not provide work therapy for troubled individuals.

Question #2 – How well do you and your associates attack the problems brought to you by your customers? All businesses and non-profits are problem solving entities. We exist to resolve an issue or issues. We fix problems brought to us by our clients and customers. This is easy to see in repair or service companies. It is less obvious in other companies but true nonetheless. In my millwork business, I educated all my employees that we are problem-solving people. A client needs something made or installed to satisfy functional or aesthetic problems, usually both, and it is up to us to do it. Further, in creating that resolution, your employees will encounter numerous problems to overcome – understanding the intent, engineering a workable design, devising a logical and safe sequence to produce the resolution, finding and sourcing the materials and components necessary to make it happen. You do not need, and cannot tolerate, excuses. You need results and that is what you pay for.

Queston #3 – Do your employees solve more problems than they create? If an employee or an associate is creating more issues than they solve, the indications that they are in the wrong position grow more pointed.

Question #4 – Do you underwrite and support work that falls short of the standard? You can excuse incompetence but you must never sanction it. Never, and I mean never rob from strength to pay for weakness. One of my more successful failures was a brief venture in a partnership. It was a door and window manufacturing company. My part of the deal was to be the front man. I did the marketing, met with clients, and sold products. Our very first job was for several windows and doors, all of hardwood. I turned the order over to my business partner whose job it was to oversee the manufacture of the products. In due time the components were delivered to the client who then called me the next day. He was not happy. I visited the jobsite and discovered why. Honestly, any high school woodshop class could have turned out a better product. I brought back one of the defective windows, set it up on the bench, and gathered the crew.

“This is what we are turning out,” I showed them the window.

They looked it over and incredibly said, “What’s wrong with it?”

I then showed them item by item the flaws and there were many.

My business partner then countered, “Well, we can’t do any better.”

“Then,” I argued, “we can’t be in this business.”

Soon thereafter I sold my shares and moved on because it became very clear that the manufacturing side indeed could not do any better. In a short time the company was out of business. Be frank, be honest, be frankly honest in your assessments of performance. Some people are excruciatingly nice but they may not be up to the job. The decisions to be made are business ones. We are surrounded by incompetence because we sanction it. Margins of error can become very broad highways for incompetence if we let them. If you are required to go back over an associate’s work, to continually monitor their performance, to run them down and demand accountability, there is a problem and if won’t go away by itself. You might be able to fix it by more training. But if you try that and fail, it’s time to make the hard business decision.

Question #5 – Do your employees or associates mistake forbearance for indifference? You may be patient, tolerant of error, slow to react, willing to invest time and effort to bring someone along. However, make sure all your associates know that your forbearance should not be taken to signal indifference. If you continually ignore poor performance, missed goals, and failed attempts, if you set a standard but do not enforce it your associates and employees will lose respect for you and exploit what they assess to be weakness. I fired a manager because I am serious about the standards required by this business and I intend to make certain they are in place.

Question #6 – Do you play fair? Demand the same principled level of performance of everyone. Never let one get away with neglecting in one what is required of another. This fosters the concept that a good ole boy system is in place and truthfully, if you do favor one over another, a good ole boy system is indeed in place.

Attitudes of an Effective Delegator #2 – Gratefulness

gratefulnessThis week’s entry just happens to coincide with the American holiday of Thanksgiving, a once-a-year day set aside to be thankful for the bounty we have enjoyed. Originally it signaled the end of the harvest season when crops were gathered from the fields. Most Americans no longer farm but the day has remained one of the most significant and important holidays on the calendar.

We tend to look at the attributes of leadership in management terms – organizing, directing, overseeing and the like. But effective leaders are also skilled in the more intangible attributes. This one – gratefulness – has so much to do with the perspective one holds of others and the way one handles them.

We handle things of value with greater care and attention than we do things of little value. We don’t throw jewels on the floor. We throw rubbish there. We don’t handle breakable things roughly, we handle them with care.

So it is with the attitude of gratefulness. I seldom use dictionary definitions but this one is particularly relevant. Gratefulness is defined as “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful.”

Note especially focus – “appreciative of benefits received.”

In my Facebook yesterday there appeared a meme from the Zig Ziglar Company. It said “You can do anything, but you cannot do everything.”

True. We can and we can’t. Most leaders are multi-talented individuals capable of great achievement. But that very attribute, the ability to do just about anything, often trips us up. We try to do too much by ourselves, overcommit to responsibilities, and get caught in the whirlwind of trying to keep up. That’s where delegation comes in.

“Appreciative of benefits received”

Effective delegators are thankful for what others can do. They accept their personal limitations which opens the door to finding others to do for them what they cannot do for or by themselves.

Effective delegators understand that others are more than people who do things. Those things those others do provide considerable benefit to everyone. The objectives of the company or organization are furthered. Progress is realized. Profit is gained.

Understand what others cannot do. We can’t do everything, neither can anyone else. Everyone has limited time, talent, and energy. Effective delegators know that and work within the bounds of those limits. Motivators, and by that I mean leaders who are good at unleashing energy and enthusiasm in others, know that the most efficient and effective means of unleashing others is to focus in on what they are good at doing. We all have times when we have to do things we’d rather not, but over time we all tend to rise in fields of personal ability. It’s impossible to be grateful if you focus on another’s inabilities.

Avoid resentment. Too many leaders resent the time, effort, and money it takes to employ others. Failing to fully appreciate the benefits received by the labor of others, some leaders become irritated at what it takes to train employees or associates, at the money they must pay them. Effective delegators don’t work for nothing and they accept that others don’t either. There’s an old proverb that says “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, But much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” Equating employees and associates to oxen may be a bit insensitive, but you get the idea. Yes it takes time, yes it costs money, but the benefits received are worth the expense.

Don’t assume others know how you feel or what you think. Just as we set aside one day a year here in the US to be particularly thankful, find a time in your schedule to express appreciation. Gratefulness does almost no good if it remains locked up.

So, let me be thankful to you. There are lots of places you could spend your time and lots of things to read out there. I’m thankful you’ve stopped by here today.

Now, why not pass on how you feel about those who help you?

Attitudes of an Effective Delegator #1 – Others are Smart, Responsible, & Capable

controlledWe recently fired an employee and did so reluctantly. She was a hard worker, had a very low absentee rate, and clients liked her. But in the end there was one attitude and its corresponding action that tipped the scales away from retention and towards outplacement as termination is euphemistically termed these days.

She patently distrusted everyone about everything. To hear her talk, and she talked a lot, no one on the entire team was competent except herself. Whoever worked before her or after her had screwed things up and heaven help anyone who worked with her because she rode them mercilessly, criticizing everything they did.

No one was ever good enough. No one ever did it right.

At least that was her attitude.

Productivity suffered as did quality. The result was dissension, resentment, and enmity in the team which could not be tolerated.

Now, she wasn’t actually a leader per se, so we could object that her experience is an isolated one. But you and I know that it isn’t. The same principles apply. The same dynamics engage.

Effective delegators possess one common attitude – they do not believe that others are inherently incompetent, irresponsible, or contumacious. Others may not be trained fully. They may be trained differently than you. But that does not and should not equate to an incapacity to help at all.


So, let’s reorient the story to the leader of a small office on the west coast. There were a dozen or so people who worked there. The leader of the company distrusted them all. He instituted a stringent and rigid schedule of checkpoints and sign-offs that resulted in complete bottleneck at his desk. He had to check everything.

Well, he really didn’t have to check everything. He just thought he had to. He was not an effective delegator.


Then there is the final story. Mark ran an office of about 40 people. He spent most of his time recruiting the right people (more about that in a future post. It is one of the hallmarks of an effective delegator), in articulating and defining vision for the company,  and inspiring others in their pursuit of that vision. The result was an explosion of activity and productivity.

Effective delegators have the attitude that others can and will do the right thing if they understand what the objective is and believe they have the wiggle room to create. Unlike the woman mentioned at the beginning or the ineffective fellow mentioned after, the results will be amazing.


I am told that some pilots create more turbulence than is actually there by trying to control the plane too much. Airplanes move up and down, side to side, and still fly quite well. Larger planes are more forgiving, but most of what we do is done in slammer settings so the principle is particularly relevant. When we do not understand the dynamics of movement and motion, when we do not allow for some variance, when we try to rigidly manipulate control devices in fear that something will go wildly out of control, we create more turbulence than is actually there.

There is no such thing as a perfectly smooth journey. Effective delegators understand that and relax at the controls. Not abandon them. Relax.

You’ve got good people with you and around you. Let them do their job.

The Attitudes of an Effective Delegator

delegating“He was a very hard worker but not a good delegator,” said the consultant. Sitting across the table from the president and vice-president of the company he was advising, that consultant had been hired every year for the past five years to update the business plan for the year. Under new leadership, the company was enjoying a remarkable turnaround seeing levels of activity and progress not evident for almost a decade.

As the numbers began to improve, the consultant made the observation that the previous president was a very hard worker (he was indeed) and a very nice man (also true), but that he had not been an effective delegator.

If you’ve been in leadership for very long you have undoubtedly had a class or two on the subject, read a book or two on it, and encountered effective delegators and ineffective ones.

I have as well.

Your experience might be different but most of the classes and books I read poorly served the subject of delegating because it focused on the act of delegating, the process of making assignments. So we are taught to find people we can give jobs to and then give them away.

But it doesn’t work quite that simply. The president mentioned above didn’t have much trouble giving jobs away, but failed miserably at it. The reasons why, and the observant remark of that consultant have provoked this new series at The Practical Leader.

So for the next several posts we will be exploring the attitudes and beliefs of an effective delegator.  Delegation is more than making assignments. Effective delegation is an assemblage of nuanced attitudes and actions for which ultimate success depends on the ability to employ the right actions for the right reasons at the right time.

So what are they?

Come back in on Monday, November 16th for the first installment.