Two little words that infallibly predict an employee’s departure

exit-left-123-hiI noticed the shift in vocabulary during a general meeting of department heads. The substitution of just two words signaled to me that a long-term employee was on her way out.  In less than 30 days she was gone.

There are often lots of signs that an employee or associate is leaving. Most people signal a break up before they actually close the door behind them. But some signs are far from certain indicators of an impending exit.

People change habits all the time. Circumstances outside of the job may force them to vary when they check in for the day and when they clock out. Just about everyone gripes from time to time. Short vacations and the occasional day off may mean they are job hunting or interviewing or it may not. Those things and more may hint at a change and they may not.

But the use of two little words signals a shift in attitude, loyalty, and ownership. Their use infallibly predicts a departure is imminent. I’ve seen it and heard it dozens of times in my own companies and those for whom I’ve consulted. It goes like this.

When someone is happy, when they feel like they fit in, when they have bought in to the company and its culture, they refer to it in conversations with customers, clients, and associates as “we.”  “Yes,” they respond to a customer’s inquiry, “we carry that product” or “we can do that for you.” Ownership and buy-in affects a person’s perspective, inserting them into the picture as an insider.

But when someone is considering leaving, their perspective changes. The soon-to-depart employee considers himself or herself to be out of the picture, no longer owning a piece of the company, its culture, or its objectives.

Then, that person who is heading for the door changes their vocabulary ever so slightly.

When the occasion arises that they would have said “we”, they say “they.” Like “they can get that for you” or “they carry the product.”

Then in conversations with other employees, they not only use the word “they” when referring to the company or its departments, they use the word “you” instead of “we” like “You need to take care of this delivery issue.” This is precisely what I heard vocalized by the person I mentioned in the first paragraph. She had been with the company for a long time, was there when the company started. But things had grown and changed. One thing and then another happened that caused her to consider a divorce from her long-term relationship with the business. Soon she started referring to it as “they” and advising the powers that be that “you need to handle this and that” when the “this and that” had been her responsibility. At that point she had transferred it to you and them.

You’ve almost certainly seen and heard it, too. Ownership is gone. The associate or employee may not have ever vocalized to anyone that they were thinking of leaving, but their use of two little words revealed it.  Buy-in has vanished. They may not actually vacate the premises for days, weeks, or even months, but they are already gone…and by then it is almost certainly too late and too far to get them back.

Overwhelming leadership success and management failure

patton relievedOne of the best examples of overwhelming and comprehensive leadership success and overwhelming and comprehensive management failure can be seen in the career of General George Patton. A brilliant and courageous strategist, his record of success on the field of conflict in two wars is nothing short of phenomenal.

But as bright a star as he was, it faded some at the end of his career when military command put him in charge of administering a designated precinct of conquered territory. In that he didn’t do so well. He was a leader, not a manager.

Now, I am not here to do anything other today than draw the distinction between the skills Patton so brilliantly manifested as leader and those he so poorly executed as a manager.

First, leadership and change go hand in hand. Who responds to leaders? Followers! Followers follow someone who is leading them somewhere else. Managers don’t. Managers maintain and the word “maintain” means to “cause or enable a condition or state of affairs to continue.” Leaders are change agents, managers guard against it.

Second, leadership is a relationship. It is a function of a set of intangibles and nuances that Patton did and people like him do it very well. But management is an assortment of tasks that are done and redone that measure and oversee the processes that maintain things to continue as they are. Leaders make things count, managers count things.

Third, leaders primarily look ahead while managers look behind. Managers find fulfilment and reward in remaining faithful to systems. Leaders are always breakout people. They delight in making a difference and revel in uncertainty. Managers get excited about keeping things steady and certain. Leaders launch into the unknown, managers would rather not.

In effective organizations, both are necessary. And both share some people skills, but their intentions and objectives are different. Not contradictory, effective organizations foster a collaborative relationship because it functions best.

One reason Patton did so poorly as an administrator is that he could not readily or comfortably make the transition from leadership to management. And I suggest that he shouldn’t have accepted the job at all. Perhaps he had no choice, but it wasn’t long before command made a change. So we can conclude that perhaps one more skill is vital for effective leaders – that of knowing when to quit and move on. Leaders lead and are seldom satisfied doing anything other than that.

The Might as Wells – Letting one thing lead to too many others.

Gustave-Moreau Sirens songI call it sequences, that annoying way of letting a simple task become far more complex. Even Murphy and his sagacious laws (If anything can go wrong it will, et al) has wryly observed that “You can’t do something until you do something else first.”

Sometimes, it is unavoidable…and true. You really can’t do some things until you do something else first and you might not have seen that other thing you need to do until you start doing the other thing.  (How’s that for a twisted sentence?) But sometimes we do it to ourselves.

I usually post a new article on The Practical Leader twice a week but haven’t for about ten days because I took time off to make some needed repairs on our house. With my wife out of town visiting family, it was a good time to tear things up.

Happily and prudently I had a detailed plan of what I needed to get done and made projections about how much time it would take and what materials I would need. But once I got into the project I discovered many opportunities to make the project larger and consequently more complex. I say “happily” because whenever we embark on a plan the “might as wells” pop up. As long as we’re doing this, we might as well do that.

It might be correct. Perhaps we might as well do something else along the way. Unexpected issues can arise that should be dealt with. But some should not. It takes real detachment to become a disengaged and unemotional observer to make the decisions.

  1. Make clear plans and have a focused vision of what you intend to accomplish, in what period of time. The power to focus is the power to excel and complete. Letting a job get out of hand is a sure recipe for disaster.
  2. Just because you can does not mean that you should. “Might as well” is NOT a good enough reason to add a job to the plan. Make sure added tasks are fully justified before taking them on.
  3. Even when you should doesn’t mean you should right now. Efficiency is always a good idea but effectiveness is more important. Stay focused on the objective.

Leaders have to remember that the temptations to veer off course, even if it can be rationalized and legitimized, are like the Siren’s song, luring those on a mission off course and into ruin.

Do you really want that promotion?

Leaders are change agents. Managers are less so. Leaders steer the ship in new directions or they inspire followers to pursue the company’s vision with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Manager just, well, manage. They keep systems operating smoothly, meet quantifiable targets, and keep things on track.

Most of us expect promotions. We expect to advance into higher levels of authority and responsibility. We don’t always understand what that implies. A skill set and personality that works wonderfully in one spot does not always work very well in another. Let me explain using a focused example.

Kent was the owner of a successful machine shop. He had a from four to six employees depending on the workload who turned out small parts on a relatively short turnaround time. He managed the shop well, kept the processes tight, and turned a profit year after year. He could control his employees with wages and incentive bonuses.

Then, a large non-profit organization hired Kent. There he worked with a larger staff of volunteers. Kent’s new job demanded a different skill set that of being able to articulate visions and inspire volunteers to pursue the vision. It was a completely different dynamic than that of his shop…and it didn’t work too well. A heavier hand might have kept manufacturing processes on track but the new organization demanded a lighter touch. He managed the shop with perfection but the non-profit required a skill set for which he was not very well equipped.

It is not necessarily true that a great manager can become a great leader. In 1969, Laurence J. Peter wrote a book called the Peter Principle. In it he said “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

He was not being cynical, he was being observant. We tend to believe that people who have performed well at one level can perform just as well at another, that a line manager can become an effective leader.

They might.

But they might not.

Now lest we think that one job is more prestigious and therefore more worthy than another, let me be clear that the best work experiences I have ever had were in companies where the number 2 person knew they were a number two person and were quite content to be there.

Most of us go through a good many positions in our careers but one of the most valuable secrets we will ever learn is to know at what level we function best. Managers who are put into positions of higher responsibility (check again the chart I used last week, reprinted here below), may indeed find conceptual thinking rewarding. But others like to “get their hands dirty” so to speak. They like the pace and activities found in maintaining systems and processing plans.

hersey blanchard chart

Others find it grueling and boring.

Then there are entrepreneurs who love starting businesses but hate running them. They love the challenge of taking a concept and fleshing it out but bristle at the drudgery of day to day management (at least they perceive it as drudgery).

So, let’s look again at the Peter Principle. The prevalent idea is to advance up the ladder until one sits in the highest office. Pressure is usually applied from several directions – spouses, parents, associates, and superiors can exert either subtle or more overt influence to try and get you to move up. Perhaps you should. But maybe not.

How would you know and what should you do? I’ll begin to explain on Thursday.

 

Three things you can measure right now that will help determine where you fit as a leader or manager

FindingYourPlaceAt what level do you most often think? At what level are you most often called upon to think?

You have to think about a lot of things. You daily task list may be long and detailed or limited and general. But you have a lot to think about.

Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard conducted research to determine the types of thinking leaders and managers do. Then, once the types were defined,  they plotted them out to determine who did which type of thinking and what that indicated about their roles.

They discovered that leaders and managers think about:

Concepts – understanding the organization, department, or business as a whole. They seek to discover how their work and their role fit into the overall organization. Most importantly, they think about how to keep vision alive and vibrant and to insure that all that goes on does so according to that vision.

Human interaction and motivation – how to best understand the people with whom they work. They know that people are not machines and that each responds to opportunity and challenge differently. Motivation is a purely personal response which demands that leaders and managers possess the ability to discern the dynamics that are at play and know what to do.

Technical tasks and methodology – People need to be trained. They must have certain skills for certain jobs. Job schedules and quality must be maintained while using safe practices and safe equipment. Widgets have to be made from whatzits so someone has to consider how that happens, by what process, and in what order.

Hersey and Blanchard also discovered that the mix and blend of thinking differs depending upon the leader’s or managers position in the organization. Lower level leaders and managers have a greater responsibility to consider technical tasks and methodology. The higher up the scale one progresses the more one’s thinking transitions from tasks and methodology to concepts. Predictably, everyone at every level thinks about the human side of things at about the same amount. They diagramed it like this:

hersey blanchard chart

Where do you fit?

So, we can reverse engineer this to discover where we fit. The more we are responsible to think about concepts and the implementation of those concepts, the higher up we sit on the management scale. So the obvious conclusion is this ‘ what are you responsible to think about and what does that reveal about where you are in the organization? Then, there is one more thing I suggest you consider. That is, where would you like to be? Are you feeling comfortable and fulfilled where you are? If you’re stressed out much of the time, one must ask why? If it is due to a bad fit, if you are a concepts thinker stuck in a technical thinking position, stress will result. The reverse it also true.

Think about this over the weekend. Next week I will discuss how to find your place.

Leadership Challenge #1 – the innocently rude sales clerk

 

customer serviceRemember the challenge from Monday? Here it is. My response is below.

You are the owner/manager of a retail department store. Your store is busy so high sales volume also means a lot of returns.  One of the new employees is tasked with handling the checkout register and for restocking items as they are returned when checkout traffic permits. The employee has gone through the company’s orientation and training but has been working the floor only for a few weeks.

You are working the floor, walking the many departments to watch for problems, help where needed, and answering questions. You see a customer browsing the rack of trousers in the men’s wear department. The customer has focused in on one garment and has pushed surrounding garments aside so he can look more closely.

The new employee approaches with an arm load of clothes to restock. She approaches the customer looking at trousers and says, “Excuse me.” Then without waiting for a response from the customer, she pushes the trousers he was looking at back together, spreads others apart, inserts the ones she is carrying, and walks off.

You see the customer’s look of surprise. As the employee walks away, the customer turns and leaves too without selecting a garment for purchase or even looking further.

What would you do?

Here’s what I would do?

  1. Try to find the customer before he leaves the store and apologize. Do not justify the employee’s behavior. Do not try to explain. Just apologize and offer a 10% off compensation. This addresses the effects of what happened immediately.
  2. Find the employee and speak with her. Do not wait until next week or even think about trying to address this in a public meeting. Give her the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely she considered what she did as rude. She was probably just trying to be efficient and conscientious. She does double duty on the floor and at the cashier’s counter so she was likely trying to get through floor duty so she could get back to the counter. Guide the conversation but do not reprove, at least not at this stage. If you take the time to inform and train now, and see her do it again later, you can be sterner then. But now, explain what happened and why the customer felt the way they did. Then explain what should be done when stocking or restocking merchandise.
  3. Review your training and orientation curriculum. Make sure that it covers situations like this. Do not assume that employees will understand. Some will. Most won’t. They aren’t naturally rude or thoughtless, well most aren’t anyway, but they can be blind to the bigger picture. Change whatever might need to be changed. Add whatever might need to be added to address the finer points of customer relations and service on the sales floor.

 

Leadership Challenge #1 – The Customer Service Fail

customer serviceYou are the owner/manager of a retail department store. Your store is busy so high sales volume also means a lot of returns. One of the new employees is tasked with handling the checkout register and for restocking items as they are returned when checkout traffic permits. The employee has gone through the company’s orientation and training but has been working the floor only for a few weeks.

You are working the floor, walking the many departments to watch for problems, help where needed, and answering questions. You see a customer browsing the rack of trousers in the men’s wear department. The customer has focused in on one garment and has pushed surrounding garments aside so he can look more closely.

The new employee approaches with an arm load of clothes to restock. She approaches the customer looking at trousers and says, “Excuse me.” Then without waiting for a response from the customer, she pushes the trousers he was looking at back together, spreads others apart, inserts the ones she is carrying, and walks off.

You see the customer’s look of surprise. As the employee walks away, the customer turns and leaves too without selecting a garment for purchase or even looking further.

What would you do? And most importantly, Why?

I will answer this on Thursday and I want to hear from you. I’ll select from the answers I receive and post them along with mine. This is NOT a test so there are no right or wrong answers. It is an exercise in leadership training and discussion is the name of the game. Send your answers to me at Jack@ThePracticalLeader.com