You Could be Wrong

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know that my first job in management came as quite a shock to me. I was a very good salesperson until one day I was pulled into the office and asked if I would be interested in jumping several levels of management to become the General Sales Manager. 

I wasn’t actually sure what the General Sales Manager did but I did know the job came with a new car, a huge office with a private bathroom and a whole lot more money. Lots and lots of money. 

So of course I said yes and the following Monday I was in charge of a large sales organization. I didn’t let the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing keep me from doing it. We were selling soda pop and I sold more than anybody. How tough could it be to make sure everyone else was selling all they could too.

To say I made a few mistakes would be a rather large understatement. The worst part was everyone but me could see the mistakes coming from a mile away. I might have been a little too proud to ask the more experienced people for help but eventually I made the sales organization more of a democracy so others could share their ideas. But I made the final call because I was the boss and that’s what bosses do. 

Shortly after I was promoted I faced the biggest decision I would ever make in my new role. There were two major convenience store chains in the city where I was working. Vendors in both of those chains paid for the best shelf space. I only had the budget to purchase “eye level”  cooler space in one of the chains. The chains appeared to be about the same to me so I very strategically picked the chain with a location closest to my house. 

We would still have shelf space in the other chain’s stores but it would be “bottom shelf. ” Customers would have to look long and hard to find our products. 

My decision looked good for a few weeks. A few weeks. Just 3 weeks after making the agreement with one convenience chain it was acquired by the chain I decided not to make an agreement with. 

The chain that did the acquiring tossed all the vendor contracts from the chain they acquired. That meant in every major convenience store in a large metropolitan area, my products were now all bottom shelf. 

I was pretty lucky that my boss didn’t think that disaster was my fault. He chalked it up to bad luck and we agreed there was no way I could have seen that coming. But to this day I suspect I could have seen it coming. I know for a fact I should have seen it coming. 

I managed to mitigate much of the damage with some new sales programs and by out hustling the competition. I also learned a ton about making decisions, making mistakes, and “fixing” poor decisions. 

But what I learned most of all is to accept the fact that I could be wrong. About almost anything. That meant that people I disagreed with could be right. About almost anything. 

Authentic Leaders must make confident decisions based on the facts they have available. They must also be open to discover new facts that become available and have the courage to change a decision based on the new information. 

Leaders who cannot accept that one of their decisions may need to be changed are very limited leaders. Leaders who refuse to accept that they could be wrong have no ability to learn from their mistakes. Leaders who believe that accepting responsibility for a poor decision is a weakness will never fully have the trust of their people. 

Leaders who do not have the trust of their people are leaders in name only. For anyone hoping to truly lead making a mistake need not be fatal, refusing to admit that mistake most often is. 

The Process of Thinking

I’m a big fan of processes. I tell salespeople all the time that there are two ways to sell, by process or by accident. 

Doing things by process allows you to do things much more consistently. Having a process makes it easier to transfer skills from an experienced employee to a newer, less experienced one.

I believe in the power of planning and when people ask for my help with planning I share a well thought out eight step planning process. Things done by process are simply done better. 

Except when they are not. 

Some companies have processes that are so good they haven’t changed them in years. There is a story about a young accountant in the UK in the late 1990’s who was in his first annual budget review meeting. There was an item in the budget for “screens” and the amount was substantial. He asked what the screens were for and no one seemed to know. The line item had been there “forever” so each year they added a percent or two for the item and they moved on. 

Well the young accountant was more curious than the more experienced people on the team so he did a little investigating. He determined that the line item first appeared in the budget in the early 1940’s so in fact it wasn’t there forever. It turns out the “screens” were first purchased to place on top of the manufacturing plant’s smokestacks. Apparently there were planes from another country flying over England at night. They were using the fire at the bottom of the smokestacks as targets for the bombs that were dropped from the planes. 

The young accountant did some additional research. He discovered that it had been a good many years since that other country had sent bombers over England to destroy their manufacturing plants. And yet screens were still being replaced each year because it was part of the company’s process. 

And that’s when processes are not so good. 

When a process, no matter how effective it may have once been, is allowed to replace thinking a host of problems can ensue. 

Most leaders would tell me that their processes are well thought out. I’m sure that’s true but leaders shouldn’t be asking themselves if their processes are well thought out. The question every leader must ask, about every single one of their processes is, how old is the thinking that developed the process?

A process should never replace thinking. No team member or employee should ever be discouraged from questioning a process. Every process can be improved. Every process exists in a changing environment. To assume that any process never needs to change along with it’s environment is a very dangerous assumption. 

So think about every process that exists within your organization. Do you know how it came into existence? Do you know if it is still needed and why? Do you know when it was last updated? Do you know the last time anyone even thought about the process before mindlessly following along without even considering why they were doing it? 

If you can’t answer every single one of the questions with a high degree of specificity then you may have an opportunity for real improvement in your organization. Question every process and don’t stop until you have an answer. It’s likely those answers will bring improvement with them.

Never let a process, even a good one, keep you from thinking about how it could be improved. If you stop thinking you may one day find that even though the bombing has stopped you’re still hearing imaginary planes overhead. 

What a Leader Needs to Know

I still remember being promoted to my first leadership position. I was a fairly new salesperson when I was promoted to the position of General Sales Manager. I skipped several layers of leadership to reach that level. That put me in kind of a strange position. It put the people who were my bosses on Friday in an even weirder spot because the following Monday I was their boss.

Many people were shocked by my sudden rise in the organization but no one was more shocked than me. It all happened so quickly that to this day I don’t know exactly why I was promoted so far up the organizational chart. But I do know I felt like kind of a fraud. 

The people working for me had a lot more experience. They knew stuff I didn’t know. 

In fact I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. But I knew this much, many of the people suddenly working for me were very unhappy about it. They didn’t like working for someone much younger and far less experienced than them. 

So I resolved to fake it until I learned everything I would need to know to be a successful leader. 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone…except maybe myself. 

That was many years ago and I’ve yet to learn everything I need to know to be a truly complete leader. But I’m okay with that because I now know I will never know enough to avoid every possible mistake. 

All leaders need to know that they can never know it all. They need to know that saying “I don’t know” doesn’t make them a weak leader, it makes them a human leader. 

Authentic Leaders don’t need to know more than the people they lead. In fact, the best leaders want people on their team who know things they don’t. They want people who know enough to  challenge and enlighten their thinking. 

If you’re a leader who believes they need to fake it until they know more than everyone else then you’re a leader who needs to rethink that. You can never know it all. So stop believing you need to and accept the fact that if you allow it to be, every day is an opportunity to learn something new. 

Authentic Leaders never miss that opportunity and neither should you.

Take the Bait

Generally speaking when “bait” is taken it turns out rather badly for whoever took the bait. I think that’s why they call email scams “phishing” attacks. Some con artist casts some bait and an unsuspecting person “takes the bait” and the outcome is less than optimal. 

Ask any fish and they can tell you taking the bait is a really bad idea. 

But not always. Because leaders aren’t fish.

Let me tell you about Larry and Harry. Harry works for Larry and has been a loyal team member for some time. He typically outworks his co-workers and Larry values him beyond measure. 

On one particularly challenging day Larry asks Harry to give even more effort than normal. Harry assures his boss that he is up to the task and sets out to get the job done. As Harry undertakes the extra workload he can’t help but notice his co-workers coasting through their day as usual. But Harry pushes through, truly giving an A Plus effort. 

At the end of his day Harry reports on his day to Larry. He tells him he got this done, he got that done. He had several issues but overcame them to get it all done. He shares that he even gave up his breaks and lunch to figure out a particularly challenging task. He reports that he is completely worn out but proud of what he was able to accomplish. 

Larry replies with the detailed results of his day as well. He managed to accomplish a ton and he might be even more worn out than Harry. 

Harry heads home for the day we three thoughts on his mind. One, he is wondering what he has to do to get a little appreciation from Larry. Two, he is thinking about his co-workers who floated through their day and received the same level of appreciation from Larry that he did…zero. Third, he’s thinking about whether or not it “pays” to put in the extra effort and whether or not he’s the stupid one for working harder than the others. 

There is not an Authentic Leader in the world that wants their people thinking any of those things. 

You see, when Harry shared the results of his day with his boss he was fishing. Fishing for a simple response, one that would feed his desire to outwork others. All he needed to hear from Larry was a sincere “Thank you” for a job well done. Instead he felt in competition with his boss for who got the most done. 

Larry failed to take the bait. Then he failed in his leadership role. 

The thing is, Larry is a pretty good leader, he just forgot that leadership is a full time job. He forgot to always be on the lookout for an opportunity to recognize his people. He forgot that failure to recognize his people can turn a high performing team member into a mediocre performer overnight. He forgot that failure to recognize his people is a fast way to demotivate his people.

It’s an easy thing to forget. But the best leaders don’t forget that their own success is completely dependent upon the success of their people. That’s why they always look for opportunities to show their people that they make a difference and it’s noticed. 

When was the last time you offered one of your people a simple thank you for a job well done? Don’t wait for the bait, do it today!