Tag Archives: leadership

The “Too Valuable” Fallacy

“To every thing there is a season” or so said Pete Seeger and the Byrds, or the Book of Ecclesiastics in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on one’s preference.  And in keeping with the ends of the personal preference paradigm, Fox News has shared a classic business lesson.  No, not “those” kinds of lessons.  This is one of those timeless lessons of business, of life, of organizations and leadership.  Ford did it with Lee Iacocca.  The 49ers traded Montana and the Colts let Peyton go to Denver.  The Today Show let Katie go, ESPN has lost almost everyone, and even MJ and the Bulls came to an end.  And every company in history has parted ways with their top sales person.  Eventually, there comes a time when those “too valuable” are simply not that valuable.

Fox News as an organization has demonstrated that maxim that “no one person is more valuable than the overall organization”.  Everything else about Fox News aside, there is no denying, they have put the good of the organization above some of the most “valuable” personalities in the infotainment industry.  For various reasons, which we will not discuss or debate, Fox News has parted ways with two hugely successful personalities in Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly.  Vastly different scenarios, but the fundamental truth remains:  the organization was placed ahead of the individuals.

It is quite easy to fall into the leadership trap that the team, the organization, the business, the company, cannot survive without the “top performer”.  While it is true that great talents, performers, sales people, operations leaders, analysts, skilled craftsman, or the uncounted millions of committed team members are all special, there are some that just seem to have more of an impact.  They apparently are the one generating the lion’s share of the revenue, that are the driving force in innovation and change, that are the glue that holds the team together, that are simply “too valuable”.  Yet eventually, there comes a time.

It was a key component of military life, no one is indispensable; the mission and the team come before the individual…no matter whom it might be.  The same holds in sports, entertainment, and business.  Sure, those special “stars” can have an enormous impact, but the Bulls remained relevant without MJ, the Broncos have won after Elway (thanks Peyton), the Today Show is back on top, ESPN marches on, and Ford has continued to build cars.  And the country carries on regardless of who is in which office.  In fact, quite often organizations and individuals flourish after the split.  “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” as the lyric or verse reminds us.

It is challenging for leaders to take the long view when the decision is at hand, but while the temptation is there to make “just one exception” for that great talent; to retain and profit from that special person a little longer, let Fox News and Bill O’Reilly pass through your mind.  He was a ratings and revenue goldmine for the network, and while his particular scenario made for a relatively easy decision, most are more of the Megan Kelly variety – tough calls, but in the end no one is indispensable.  Ever.

 

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Being Correct and Being Right

There are accidents, mistakes, “missteps” and “misspeaking”, errors, glitches, oops, oversights, old fashioned screw ups, and then there are just complete debacles.  United Airlines and their CEO Oscar Munoz are in the middle of an ongoing series of self-inflicted mistakes.  They have moved from a comedy of errors that will literally cost them tens of millions to becoming pop culture icons…for all the wrong reasons.  They are the butt of jokes, memes, hashtags and certainly in the crosshairs of countless law firms.  In short, they are in a real mess.

None of us will ever truly know the whole story, and in the end it does not make one ounce of difference.  The damage to both the company and Mr. Munoz has been done.  They will be living with this mess and its fallout.  While not inclined to pile on, I am reminded of an old leadership adage:

“You do not have to always be correct, but you should always be right.”

It was a phrase, well actually a sentiment, while phrased differently depending on the situation, but a leadership maxim that was repeatedly drilled into me over the years.  The idea that doing the right thing is always the proper decision.  While not often, but there will be times that the “right thing” might not be the “correct thing”.  The spirit of the law, the intention of the law, trumps the letter of the law.  That sometimes sound judgement is more important than “going by the book”, that being a compassionate leader is more important than being a by-the-numbers manager.

Were the gate agents, the crew, security, etc. all doing what the manual said? More than likely the answer is yes.  Was doing exactly what the book said right?  Clearly not.  While we can all acknowledge that policies, procedures, “the book”, the law, etc. exist for tried and true reasons, not the least of which is to avoid mistakes, but there still exists the need for logic and good judgement, and it is incumbent on leaders to both exercise said logic and judgement, and to empower their people to exercise the same.  And when it comes to working with other people, there is no more critical time for sound judgement and logic.

In an era where automation, binary decision trees, micromanagement, 360 reviews, quarterly reports, litigious fear and corporate policies drive the daily decisions making, it is wise to sometimes pause.  A leader, and everyone, need to take a look at the bigger picture, consider the message, the audience, and above all the individuals involved, and then make a decision.  It was an old adage of an earlier life, “don’t do anything you do not want to see on the front page of the paper”.  The same idea applies…do not do anything you do not want on FaceBook Live, Instagram, Twitter, etc.  Everyone has a phone, which has a camera, a video function and instant connection.  Screaming after the fact “I was just following the rules” will not be a message that resonates.

Sometimes it is better to be right than correct.

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Teams and the All Star

Kobe goes out in a shower of pop culture glory while the Warriors win their 73rd regular season game.  The NBA had quite the night earlier this week.  You have a one name super star and legendary player go out on a crazy scoring night while another team finishes the season with more wins than MJ’s Bulls.  It was the stuff of main stream news and cultural consciousness, as well as a great reminder for every leader – be careful who you have in your locker room.

The Golden State Warriors have been an incredible story, from winning the NBA title in 2015, to marching their way through this season to an unprecedented 73 regular season victories.  They have done it with aplomb, while their head coach was out for the first several months of the season, while being the reigning champions that every opponent gives their best game, and under the bright lights of relentless coverage and analysis.  They have met and exceed expectations as a team.  The players, the coaches, everyone involved have risen to the occasion.

Conversely, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have been an absolute mess, lingering at the bottom of the NBA for years.  Though in the twilight of his career, Kobe has never once relented in his focus on being the center of the Lakers.  The ball will go through him, to him, and will be shot by him…a lot.  He was the highest paid player on the team, demanded and ensured that he remained at the top of the industry pay scale, and remained at the forefront of the Lakers marketing and consciousness.  It was abundantly clear that what mattered to Kobe, was, well Kobe.  Granted, he scored 60 in his final game, but he took 50 shots.  Yes, you have to “take ’em to make ’em” but that is far from all-star percentages.

In the end, the Golden State Warriors are a team.  Sure, they have their own star players, especially Steph Curry, an incredible coach in Steve Kerr, and a great organization, but above all they are a team.  No one is more important than the whole.  The Lakers in the Kobe era, and especially so in the later phases of his career, have been about Kobe above all else.  Basketball, more than probably any other sport, demands a team have at least one or two star players.  There are only 5 guys on the floor – one or two make a huge difference.  However, it is still a team sport.  An all time great alone cannot make it happen; just ask LeBron.  In the end, teams win.

It is incredibly tempting to hire and retain the “best player”, to make exceptions for the “all star”, the top producer, that special person.  However, that special person cannot be placed ahead of the team, the greater goal, the common mission.  Steph Curry is a special player, an MVP, an All Star, but he is also a team player.  Kobe was an MVP and an All Star to the end, but never was he known as a team player.  Even Michael, a renowned competitor and a bear of a teammate, was always known to be a teammate.  Demanding,; sure.  But always a teammate.

Yes, Kobe and the Lakers were the story of the day.  The ratings, the press, the glitz, the stars, the pop culture darlings, it was all Kobe and the Lakers that night.  The Warriors setting the new season wins record was the “other NBA story”.  That was one day, well maybe two.  Next week, the Warriors start the first round of the playoffs, and Kobe starts his retirement, and the Lakers start to rebuild their franchise.

Building a team is hard.  Finding the best talent it tough.  Hiring and retaining great people is even harder.  But finding, hiring and retaining the right talent, well that is how a winning team is built.  When given the choice, taking the very good player and teammate trumps the great individual.  It only takes one bad hire, regardless of their talent, to ruin a team.  Put aside the glitz and glamor, and find that special person that has the skills and talent, as well as the selflessness and maturity to be a great teammate.  And if you find your MJ, well provide them the leadership to at least be a teammate.  And if you find a Steve Kerr…then keep on winning.

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To Ensure Failure, Just Use Your Words

It is Pavlovian, hearing the old alma mater mentioned in the news still perks up the ears.  Unfortunately, like the news that typically comes from the State of Illinois, hearing the University of Illinois mentioned tends not to be followed by positive, uplifting stories.  Then add that this bit of news was broadcast during a sports segment, well one tends to “brace for impact – this will not be good”.  Sadly, what was shared was not just frustrating as an alumni, it was absolutely infuriating on a professional and personal level.

Leaders, regardless of role, scope or circumstance, have a responsibility to those they lead.  It is a professional and personal responsibility to help the organization and individuals meet and exceed their potential.  To do what is right for others, to inspire, to provide a vision, a plan and the resources to obtain that which they collectively wish to achieve.  Leadership is the core of politics, of business, of athletics, and of all things that require group effort.  And effective leaders must communicate.  They must speak as a leader.  Sadly, the quote that came from the University of Illinois Athletic Department and it’s Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk was a case study in failure:

“Obviously, it’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said.

Foremost, a leader must speak with confidence.  If the leader has no faith, no confidence in the decision and course of action, it is a given that no one else will.  To preface your statement with “it is not ideal but…” is synonymous with “this is going to be miserable but…”.  While acceptable when describing a lifeboat relative to the Titanic, it is not effective when speaking of a newly hired, or in this case contract extended, leader or coach.  Kowalczyk quite literally undermined the very foundation of trust, confidence and support Coach Cubit requires to have any chance of success in leading the football program.  When a leader denies their support to those they are responsible to lead, they have ensured the ultimate failure of the team.  All the financial resources, material, logistics and marketing cannot offset the damage done when moral support and confidence is denied to a subordinate.  Especially so in a public forum.

As if the first disclaimer was not damaging enough, to then set the bar just above “putting a dagger in the heart of the program” with the awe-inspiring caveat of “I don’t think” is worse than actually admitting defeat.  A leader must have the courage of their convictions.  A leader is not just there to deliver the positive message, they also must deliver the bad.  And when delivering bad, clarity and ownership are of critical importance.  Waffling and trying to “sugar coat” the bad news is worse than the actual bad news.  Kowalczyk set the standard for acceptable performance with his statement.  The only thing Coach Cubit, and by extension his players and staff, are expected to do is not “kill the program”.  For the staff and the players, there is absolutely no reason to do anything more than the minimum.  No one enjoys being a part of an organization who’s only goal is to do the minimum.  No one enjoys “working to lose”.

Lastly, Leadership 101 – know the names of your people…and use them.  It seems so trivial, so basic, so obvious, but taking the time to learn someone’s name  means you care.  A leader must care about those they lead.  If the leader does not care, if names are not important, then it is absolutely assured the subordinates notice, and that lack of personal caring will be reciprocated.  If your subordinates are simply an “it” to you, then you are nothing more than an “it” to them.

Much like the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois is going through a period of difficulty and challenge.  There is a leadership void in the university, with the “interim” title either in use or having been used over the last 12 months at the President, Chancellor, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach levels.  It is not a positive scenario for anyone, and is clearly a crucible in which strong leadership is required.  Administration and Management are not the same as Leadership.  While Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk might be a fine director, manager and administrator, he clearly could use some help on the leadership side, and especially so when it comes to speaking as a leader.

Not to be one to just throw stones, might a suggestion for Director Kowalczyk’s, or any leaders, statements take the format of stating clearly the situation, then state the vision, and lastly support those implementing the plan to attain that vision.  For example:

“It has been a trying season, yet through this period Coach Cubit has been a steady hand on the tiller, earning the respect of his players and the University.  We all are committed to moving forward and achieving success on the grid iron and in the classroom, and Coach Cubit is the man to lead this program and our student athletes.”

While not perfect, it is certainly better than “yea, it’s not what anyone wanted, but he will do for now…shoot, it really cannot get much worse”.

In the end, all the millions of dollars in revenue, all the alumni passions, all the administrator’s and coaches careers aside, it is about a group of students who joined a team.  They deserve better.

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The Very Real Costs of Bad Hires

It is one of the great “known unknowns”, to borrow one of the infamous Donald Rumsfeld lines, what does a bad hire really cost?  Hiring is an art and a science.  It is a unique combination of relationship building, a leap of faith, part quantitative and part gut feel, but it is also a process of vetting both the person and the role you want and need filled.  It requires a level of discipline and focus, commitment and patience that is difficult to maintain when there is a pressing gap in staffing and leadership.  However, succumbing to a false sense of urgency and allowing emotion to trump logic is the slippery slope that leads to bad hires, or at least hiring the wrong person for the wrong role.  In the end there is a cost to every mistake, and hiring brings real cost.

Fortunately the case of Charlie Weis is a shinning example of what one bad hire can cost an organization, or in his case several organizations.  Roughly $30 million in very real dollars.  That does not even begin to consider the opportunity costs, additional revenue streams, lost potential dollars, turnover, morale, the impact on other coaches, players, staff, programs and the myriad of other factors that one bad hire can have on an overall organization.  Charlie Weis, through no fault of his own, parlayed a brief period of success into not one, but two bad hiring decisions, bad contract negotiations, and above all illustrates the classic pitfall of “falling in love” with the hot candidate.

Notre Dame has been paying Charlie Weis since 2009 to not coach, and will continue to do so through 2016.  Kansas made the same mistake and is also paying him not to coach.  Incredible, yet not uncommon.  Guaranteed contracts are amazing things.  Most of us will not find ourselves in a position to be granting guaranteed contracts to public figures, but anyone who makes hiring decisions does find themselves responsible to organizations, coworkers, families and individuals where a bad hire does incur real costs.

Hiring is both an emotional and quantitative process.  Allowing emotion to trump data is a dangerous proposition, and when one finds themselves chasing what was, of feeling the pressure to make a splash, wanting to hire “the hot candidate”, or “really liking someone” owes it to everyone involved to take a moment and really reflect.  What is it the job demands, what are the day-to-day behaviors, the skills required, the outcomes desired and matrix of success, and only then decide if the person truly fits those needs.  Hiring managers should always heed the lesson of Charlie Weis.

In defense of Charlie Weis, while he might not be the best head coach, he just might be the greatest salesman…ever.  Convincing multiple organizations to pay you almost $30 million NOT to do something takes an incredible skill set, or at the very least one very savvy agent.

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Prime Minister Harper – Speaking as a Leader

Everybody loves Canadians.  Sadly, the reality is not quite everybody.  If there is anything that the events of the last few days has brought to the fore, it is that there are people in this world who just flat hate.  They hate people who are not like them, who do not believe as they do, that have the audacity to actively or passively disagree with their beliefs.  It is not a “degree of dislike thing”, it is a binary thing.  It is a sad bit of reality, but seeing it visited upon Canada is all the more wrenching. In times of difficulty, it is the leader who sets the tone, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done that in clear, concise language.

“This week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world,” Harper said in his address to the nation. “We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all. But let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.”

There are many things a leader needs to be, but at the very top of that list stands honesty.  A leader must speak the truth.  Sometimes, the message might need a bit of “toning”, but at critical moments, when times are tough, a clear message, spoken in plain language, in all its truth, is the sure sign of a leader.  Prime Minister Harper set the standard.

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GameDay on Leadership

Most Saturday mornings in the fall, College GameDay is on in the background as we go through the usual morning rituals.  It is not a “sit and watch” sort of thing, but it is a streaming commentary that provides an easy way to stay somewhat connected to all that is college football, pop culture and even current events.  The stories, the drama, the games, the rankings, the conversations around playoffs, suspensions and above all, the passion of the fans.  But what I have really noted this year, College Football has to be the greatest, most visible, easily comprehensible to the masses, case study in why leadership truly matters.

Though college football tends to be a fairly consistent parade of the same schools at the top, there is a pretty noticeable trend of how programs tend to rise and fall based on coaching changes.  Part of it is recruiting.  Part of it is organizational skills and management, and some of it has to do with hiring.  But what is abundantly clear, leadership is the core issue.  The great “coaches” are great leaders.  They attract the best talent, hire the best staffs, and they build the best, most efficient organizations.  Thankfully, in our highly scheduled and information saturated worlds, the simplicity of wins and losses makes for a quick and easy way to quantify the results of good leadership.

On the downside, take Michigan, Texas and Florida.  They all have the talent, the facilities, donors, boosters and the support of the school, yet the wrong coach…down they go, and quickly.  Yet, great leadership also has an immediate impact in the positive direction.  Texas A&M, Stanford and Oregon, have all found the right coach, or coaches.  They have taken average teams with inherent disadvantages to the heights of college football.  Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are clearly the best examples of what a difference good leadership can make for a program.  Each has resurrected floundering programs, quickly having major success at more than one school.  Nick Saban has been incredibly successful at both LSU and Alabama, while Urban Meyer was instrumental in taking Florida to multiple championships, and has rapidly turned Ohio State back into a perennial power.

Leaders get the right folks in the right roles, then let them perform. The best coaches have the best staffs  They are NOT afraid to hire good people. It takes a strong leader to hire a talented subordinate, or to take a risk when hiring.  There has been no better example of that adage than Nick Saban’s hiring of Lane Kiffin as his Offensive Coordinator.  Kiffin had issues as a head coach, has a fair bit of baggage, but clearly knows what he is doing when it comes to running an offense.  He might not be the best head coach, but he is certainly really good at what he does.  Saban hired him, has let him run the offense, and thus far the results speak volumes.

Just as Lane Kiffin is a “technical expert” when it comes to offense, it was clear from his tenures at Tennessee and USC, that he was not a head coach and leader.  Technical expertise does not always equate to good leadership.  Charlie Weis was just fired, again, from another head coaching job.  He might be great with an offense, but he is clearly no leader.  Will Muschamp at Florida, a defensive “genius” is standing by to be fired, as are several other technical experts who became head coaches.  It is such a common pitfall. Good salesman – make him the sales manager. Disaster.  Technical skills are not leadership skills.

Sure, College Football is just a game, and extrapolating leadership maxims from head coaches is a dicey proposition, but there are some themes that hold true.  It is tough to argue when the results are binary…someone wins, some loses.  Everything is leadership. The rest matters, but without the proper leader, it is abundantly clear, the team just does not jell and the organization founders.

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