Tag Archives: leadership

The Example – The Garage Guy

Never assume.  Like all cliches, it is all too true.

Originally it was “Pride, Professionalism and the Shoe Shine Guy“.  Those special, random few who teach us so very much about life and business.  Sure, there are the obvious role models and examples, the speakers, the leaders of industry, the thought leaders everyone has heard, but then there are the folks that are right there, living the day-to-day grind, that are possibly the greatest teachers.  Several years back there was “The Shoe Shine Guy”, and now to that special list I am proud to add “The Parking Garage Guy”.

We all have known those folks, we see them almost every working day, year after year, toiling away in anonymity.  Sometimes we are fortunate enough to slowly build a bit of a passing relationship, a morning greeting, a smile, holiday wishes, and maybe even a quick chat from time-to-time.  And then every so often, a little nugget of information slips out that slowly starts to reveal there is a special person sitting in that security booth.  It took years, and finally his sharing that he was retiring at 81 (stunning…would have maybe guessed 65…maybe) to finally bring the entire story, all the lessons, into sharp focus.

To know Amha is to know a true professional.  He was always present.  He took pride in his work.  He ran a tight ship.  He knew who was where, in what car, where the good spots were, who might need a different spot and why.  That garage was his domain, and nothing got by him.  He was sharp, smart, respectful, polite, kind, but also no nonsense.  It took a couple years to realize what was there every morning, the lessons that were being shared.

Amha is the classic American story.  He came to this country almost 20 years ago from a “rougher” part of the world.  I knew the neighborhood he and his family had left, I suspected why, and it was sort of our “secret”.   I had traveled in those parts of the world in the early 90’s – it was not a good area or time.  Always liked to think that he enjoyed the fact that there was someone here that just knew “where there was”.  The other day as he shared the news of his retirement, he also shared more of the story.  He confessed that after not being well received here as an engineer in his early 60’s who wanted to work, he elected to not just ride out his years on the couch.  He chose to become a parking garage attendant.  An Electrical Engineer who had already had an incredible career, was a man of means in another part of the world, willfully and apparently happily, took on a thankless, anonymous job.  It all clicked into place when he shared the full story.

Professionalism and pride do not stem from a title.  They are not contingent upon a level of authority, a scope of responsibility, the number of people led, the industry, the company name, level of education, or even the actual work.  Everything and anything can be a profession.  Being a professional is a state of mind, it is entirely our choice.  Pride and professionalism comes from within and it is absolutely our responsibility to carry ourselves as such in all facets of life and business.

Pride and professional do not preclude being nice.  That was the real lesson that did not fully register until yesterday.  Genuine kindness.  Doing the little something extra for someone.  A greeting.  A smile.  Being present.  Lending a hand without being asked.  But above all, referring to someone as “my friend”.  It seems so obvious, but it is so often forgotten.  You see both the Shoe Shine Guy and the Garage Guy – they were nice people.  They were good people.  They work hard, they take pride in their work; their profession.  But they glowed, absolutely glowed, when they spoke of their family and friends.

And with the kindness, the pride and professionalism, went gratitude.  Being grateful for the opportunity to work, the place you live, the opportunity to help others, to build relationships, to be a friend.  We owe it to ourselves, our families, our friends, to our clients and our co-workers, and to the Garage and Shoe Shine folks, to try just a bit harder, to be just a touch more professional, kind and grateful.

 

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NFL playoffs and Leadership…It Matters

The beauty of sports is it’s crystal clear definition of success. Games and matches are played, points are scored, finish lines crossed, a winner is determined. Moving into the heart of winter, there is no better illustrator than the NFL, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. It is without question the most American of sports institutions. The hype, the media, the corporate money, the halftime show, the commercials, the pre-game shows, and even post-game shows. It is an absolute spectacle. Yet it is all about determining a winner. A champion. While coaching and leadership matters in all sports, there is something about football that seems to magnify the impact of leadership.

Tom Coughlin was the head coach who built the Jaguars. He lead an expansion franchise from concept to the most successful expansion team in league history. The Jaguars of the mid to late 90’s were a perennial contender, culminating in two AFC Championship game appearances. They were a standard of what a franchise could be, and at the center of it all was an old fashioned, hard-nosed, detail oriented, disciplinarian. It was a no-nonsense organization, and the results were clearly visible on the field.

As the cliche goes in sports, the window closed. The players aged, injuries took their toll, salary caps and retirements all changed the team. The leadership message grew stale, and Tom Coughlin was fired after 8 years in Jacksonville. The next 15 years would not be fun for the Jaguars.

After a year away from football, Tom Coughlin was hired by the New York Giants in 2004. His demeanor, approach, attention to detail and style were exactly the same. He immediately set the tone for the Giants. “Colonel Coughlin” had arrived and it was all business. The first few years were a rough transition, but the next several seasons saw the Giants earning multiple playoff berths as well as two Super Bowl titles. But with time, the message and leadership style of Tom Coughlin grew stale, and by the end of the 2015 season he “retired” from the Giants. It was a graceful exit, but everyone knew the truth; it was time for all parties to part ways.

Sunday the Jaguars will play in the AFC Championship game. It will be their first since 1999. Tom Couglin will not be coaching, but it is clear his return to Jacksonville last year as an executive leader has set the tone. He changed the morale of the organization. He instilled a sense of pride, professionalism, and winning. The Jags have went from “worst to first”.

While leadership alone will not make a winner, a lack of leadership can certainly ensure failure. The Jaguars are a team and organization of hundreds. But the right leadership has set the tone, and that has made all the difference, at least for this season. Unfortunately, they face the Patriots. Within the confines of the NFL, the Patriots are the gold standard when it comes to leadership, organizational culture, and winning. At the center of the Patriots stands Bill Belichick, who outwardly appears to be the same sort of gruff, “old school”, “my way or the highway” type of leader as Tom Coughlin. However, Belichick has been at the helm for 18 years with the Patriots.

Clearly, leaders set the tone, but those leaders who make lasting change are not tone deaf. Leaders have to evolve, adapt, temper their message, alter their presentation, all while never losing their followers and above all, without sacrificing the core message.

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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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