An Epic Failure of Leadership

We have been presented with two options to choose from. Either the executive team at Wells Fargo is as corrupt as an executive team can be or they are the dumbest group of people ever to run any organization. 

5300 Wells Fargo employees were terminated last week for creating millions of fraudulent accounts to meet what has been described as nearly unbearable pressure and demands to add new customer accounts. Progress at some branches was reviewed as many as 4 times a day. The pressure was relentless. 

Nothing, not morales, not ethics, not even those little things called laws could slow down the relentless push to meet the Wells Fargo corporate initiative known as “Gr-eight Initiative.” Wells Fargo has a goal that every customer should have eight separate accounts with the bank.

Apparently goals are more important than anything at Wells Fargo. In order to meet the goals of the initiative employees opened new accounts for current customers without the customer’s approval or knowledge. This required forging signatures, creating fake email accounts, and moving customer’s money between these accounts without their knowledge, sometimes causing a customer’s real account to go into the red.

Here’s the most amazing part of all this to me; not one senior level manager or executive had a clue any of this was happening for the last 5 years. Of the 5300 employees terminated ALL were front line employees. Not a single manager had even a microcosm of responsibility for any of this. 

That couldn’t be harder to believe if Hillary Clinton said it.

There is clearly a culture at Wells Fargo that says anything goes. The culture doesn’t even pretend to care about ethics. Apparently the culture not only condones the breaking of laws, it encourages it. 

No matter what else may or may not be true about the goings on at Wells Fargo this much is certain: an organization’s culture comes from the top. 

What happened over the last five years at Wells Fargo is bad, what’s happening today is even worse. If nothing changes with the management at that bank then nothing changes at that bank. 

Is there even one responsible person in a position of authority at that organization? Is there even one person in a leadership position at Wells Fargo with enough courage to say “it’s on me”?

Wells Fargo paid a fine “for the actions of their employees.” What about the actions, or at the very least, the inaction of their leaders? There has been an epic failure of leadership at that bank. 5300 employees didn’t undertake that level of deceit all on their own, it’s time for the people who drove that behavior to step up.

Our lesson here is twofold: when integrity goes out the window everything else is welcome in and absent integrity from those in top leadership positions there is no motivation for anyone else to lead either.

 

A Failure of Leadership

Being fired from a job is one of the most traumatic events a person could experience in their lifetimes. Researchers say it is up there with the death of a loved one, divorce, imprisonment, and personal illness. 

The decision by a leader to dismiss someone from their job is not a decision that should be taken lightly. It can and often does have huge life implications for the person being fired; the feelings of failure often linger even after they find new employment. 

But the person being fired isn’t the only one who should feel a sense of failure. So should the leader who fired them. 

Here’s why I say that. If you’re a leader and you have someone working for you who isn’t getting the job done then the likely cause is either that you hired the wrong person or you’re not providing them the tools or training they need to succeed. 

Either way at least part of their failure is on you. With that in mind you may want to think a little harder before firing someone who isn’t meeting your expectations.

I suppose you could use the excuse that you inherited a person that someone else hired. That may let you off the hook a little but only a little. Leaders build and develop people no matter how and where they find them. If you have someone reporting to you that you are unable to develop then that’s at least a partial failure of your leadership. 

Now, here is another failure of leadership: NOT firing someone who needs to be fired. 

No matter how someone got to a point where they need to be fired, no matter who is responsible for that person’s shortcomings, when they need to go then they need to go. Allowing  an unproductive, possibly disruptive person to damage the morale or productivity of the greater team is a serious failure of leadership. 

You might believe you’re avoiding conflict by ignoring the problems caused by a poor performer but what you’re really doing is fermenting greater conflict throughout your organization. 

You do not have to be angry when letting the person go, you do not have to be overly critical, you can allow them to save face if possible but you must let them go. Keeping them around, for whatever reason only adds to whatever shortcomings they bring to the team. 

Accept your role in the failure, learn from it and move on. Remember, failing does not make you a failure, only not trying to succeed can do that.

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Your Most Expensive Employee

7218CE00-05C5-4C4A-9644-BEAC2B76D45A.pngIf you’re managing a business then keeping track of expenses is probably high on your list of priorities. One of your biggest expenditures is likely to be compensation for your employees. I’m sure you know what you’re paying your people but do you know what they are costing you?

I can’t be sure who your most expensive employee is but I do know it’s likely one of the types of individuals I describe below.

The first is a “manager” of people. That in itself is a problem because people will not be managed. People resist being managed because they are people, they expect leadership, not management.

A manager was explaining to me the challenges of managing a particular new employee. When I suggested that they try leading this particular individual instead of managing them I was more than a little surprised and disappointed by their response. 

The manager said employees must be managed before they can be led. They must have the “spirit” managed out of them because people with “spirit” won’t follow anyone. Apparently only people with their “spirit” broken can be “tamed” enough to follow. 

I found it almost impossible to believe that anyone could think that way. It was medieval leadership at it’s worst. 

It’s also incredibly expensive these days. Disengaged employees cost organizations a ton of money and one of the fastest ways to cause them to disengage is to break their spirit. Make them feel unimportant and they quickly become unproductive too.

No organization that intends to last can afford medieval leadership or management.

The second type of very expensive employee is the know it all manager. They know everything they need to know and they have nothing left to learn. 

I talked to a manager a while back who had just lost a very talented team member. When I asked if they had learned anything in the exit interview about why the employee left I was again surprised and disappointed by the answer. 

They said that they had nothing to learn from a quitter. They weren’t even interested in looking at the exit interview because “people come and go” and “there is nothing that a manager can do about it.” 

The second part might be right… there is nothing a manger can do about it. 

But a leader can! 

The odds are pretty high that if the employee had felt led they may not have left in the first place. But even if they had decided to go a leader would want to understand why and what they as a leader could have done differently to help the employee want to stay. 

Organizations invest a small fortune in recruiting and training their talent. Then they turn them over to a manager who treats them like a piece of equipment; the same as the copy machine.

If you intend for your organization to stand the test of time then you need to invest as much in developing your leaders as you do in developing the people they lead.

Do not allow your leaders to manage people, teach them to lead and they will be a bargain, no matter how much you pay them. 

Failing to Lead

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. If I were hiring for a leadership position one of the most important questions I could ask would be this: “Can you give me a recent example where the action you took required real courage?”

There are lots of characteristics required for Authentic Servant Leadership. One of the most important is courage.

The courage to make the tough choices, the courage to say no when no needs to be said. The courage to take a calculated risk and the courage to stand alone, with only the support of your principles.

But there’s another area of leadership that requires true courage that is often overlooked. It’s the courage to say something when something needs to be said. It’s the courage to have uncomfortable conversations with those you lead. It’s the courage to tell the truth when the truth is highly inconvenient.

I’ve been fortunate to be led by leaders who had the courage to tell me the truth about my performance. I’ve also been led by leaders who didn’t. Guess which ones had the most positive impact on my career. There was stuff I certainly didn’t want to hear but hearing it helped me grow. I’d bet the guys leading me would have preferred not to have the conversation either but they stepped up and led.

Conversations require two-way communication, often up close and personal. That’s just too scary for a weak leader or a leader by title only. Even otherwise strong leaders can be challenged with difficult conversations.

It is important for a leader to initiate difficult conversations but it is absolutely vital that a leader engage in difficult conversations when they are initiated by one of their followers. Leaders who think they can solve a problem by avoiding it or who believe their followers will just forget about it are dead wrong.

I know it’s not easy, I don’t like difficult conversations anymore than anyone else. I’ve also attempted to avoid my share of tough talks. But I’ve learned that solves nothing and it’s not an effective way to lead. Failing to face up to these difficult conversations is failing to lead.

Here are a couple of thoughts that may make your next difficult conversation just a little easier.

Write out what you want to say. Sometimes it’s just easier to write it out, take your time with it, put it away for a day and see if it’s still what you want to say after some time has passed. Write it just the way you would say it. I wouldn’t recommend that you read it to the person you want to converse with but the preparation involved in writing it out is likely to make the actual conversation much easier.

Practice it, and not just in your head. Say it out loud, it will sound different. You need to check your tone of voice, you need to take out the little “I know it all” and “you don’t know nothing” peaks and valleys in your voice. Almost everything we say is clearer the second time we say it so find a quiet place and have the first conversation with yourself.

Remember, if you’re doing all the talking it’s a speech not a conversation. Let the other person talk, in fact, take the pressure off yourself. Let the other person do a great deal of talking while you demonstrate that other important characteristic of a good leader, listening skills.

Authentic Leadership is Not Perfect

I have resisted the temptation to write about the recent leadership changes at Target. I’ve resisted because frankly I don’t know enough about the reasons for the changes to credibly comment on them. So I won’t…. well, I might a little.

What I will comment on is the perceived “failure” of the outgoing Chairman, President, and CEO of Target, Gregg Steinhafel. I do not know Mr. Steinhafel personally but three people that I do know and trust have told me in the last couple of weeks that he was an authentic leader. 

If he was indeed an authentic leader then what happened at Target. Could he if fact be an authentic leader and still fail? 

What exactly “went wrong” at Target is highly debatable. Whether or not an authentic leader can fail is not. An authentic leader can indeed fail.

They can fail because authentic leadership is not perfect. No leadership is perfect because leaders are people. The last perfect leader to walk the earth was here 2000 years ago and I doubt there are any leaders around today willing to make the sacrifices He made to demonstrate their perfect leadership. 

Authentic leadership should also not be confused with Effective Leadership. They are two very different things. Authentic leadership is represented by “who” you are, effective leadership is represented by “what” you do. Effective Authentic Leadership is represented by “how” you do it. The best leaders blend it all together seamlessly to leave a leadership legacy that will last well beyond their time as a leader. 

 Effective Leadership is fairly common, Authentic Leadership is less common and Effective Authentic Leadership is less common still. 

None of that however is the real point of this post. The real point is about something that happened at Target this week. 

A person described as a “mid-level” manager at Target used a website known as Gawker to complain about the culture of Target and it’s overall lack of innovation. The post went on to say that without significant changes Target was destined to become the next Kmart or Sears. 

Apparently Gawker is a website for people who lack the courage to attach their names to their opinions. I have no problem with that; sometimes people may feel they need to remain in the shadows to say what really needs to be said.

Remarkably, a Target executive posted a reply on LinkedIn basically saying that much of the original post was accurate and that the truth hurts. To be sure it was a very candid response.

Now here’s my point: if you’re a leader in an organization and your people are complaining about your organization on anonymous websites then you have a problem. If your people need courage to tell you the truth then you have a bigger problem. If you choose to respond to what you admit is the truth on yet another public website then you have the biggest problem of all. 

I’m in no position to judge the leadership of a company I only know from standing in front of their cash registers. That said, I can say that trust is a vital commodity of leadership. Authentic leaders must have the trust of their people to earn their commitment. Effective leaders must have the trust of their people to earn their bias for action. Effective Authentic leaders know they must have both to ensure long-term success.

There seems to be at least a bit of a trust issue at Target. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that Target has been so successful for so long is the very reason that trust has been eroded. Perhaps the leadership just started taking the trust of their people for granted.

You can never stop working to earn the trust of your people. Never stop showing you care, never stop showing your people how much they, and their opinion matters. Trust isn’t earned in a day and once it is earned it must continuously be re-earned. Every single day. 

As a leader, what did you do to earn the trust of your people today? 

Think about that!

Does Trust Really Matter?

I was asked by a friend of mine, someone recently promoted to a leadership position, just how much trust mattered in a leadership role.

For those of you who read this blog often my answer may surprise you.

I said it depends. I believe that’s true. 

It depends on whether you merely want to occupy a leadership position or if you really want to lead. 

You can manage your way through a leadership position and keep the organizational ship afloat. You can keep the organization together and depending on what your competition does, you may even slowly grow it.

If however, your goal is to actually lead, to make a difference in the lives of your people and truly grow and strengthen your organization, then you must lead. If you want to lead then trust is absolutely vital. Absent trust, there simply is no leadership. 

Here’s why.

To grow any type of organization you must grow it’s people. Better computers, a better process, and better systems will all help you sustain a business. If you want to grow it you’ll need better people. People get better when a leader helps them get better.

A leader can’t help their people until their people trust them enough to try new things.

Let me give you an example. I once worked for a guy who on his first day said he would much prefer that his people make a wrong decision rather than no decision at all. He promised that he wouldn’t be upset with a bad decision and he would help his people work through it.

Now I have no way of knowing if he actually meant that when he said it but the first person who made a bad decision was just hammered by this guy. No one trusted him again. All risk taking stopped, all decision making stopped, all commitment stopped, and nearly all growth stopped along with it. 

This guy was smart, he was well educated and he knew the business inside and out. He also greatly underestimated the importance of trust and it’s role in earning the commitment of his people. Despite his education, his experience, and his knowledge of the business he failed in his leadership role. The lack of trust, as much as any other single thing, did him in.

Here is an absolute leadership fact: if your people can’t trust you then your people can’t follow you. 

If they can’t follow you they can’t commit to you. If you don’t have their commitment then your influence with them will be great reduced. With reduced influence comes a reduced ability to lead.

Trust is the foundation of leadership. You can build your leadership with all the proper skills, tools and techniques but without a foundation of trust, your leadership will fail.

So, what do you think, does trust really matter to a leader? 

What Authentic Leaders Know

There are many ways to fail as a leader but only one way to succeed.

John Maxwell said it best when he said that you can care for people without leading them but you cannot lead people without caring for them. 

Way too many wanna be leaders aspire to a position that will “force” or require people to follow them. They fail to realize that no one follows a position. People follow people, not positions or titles. They also fail to understand that no one can be forced to follow, they can only be forced to comply. 

When your people merely comply their growth is limited. When you as a leader limit the growth of your people you also limit your growth and the growth of your organization as well.

Authentic leaders aspire to be the type of person that people will want to follow. They have learned that people follow leaders who genuinely care about them. I use the word “genuinely” because you can only pretend to care for a relatively short period of time. Sooner or later your supposed followers will see you for the fraud that you are.

If you expect people to follow you then you should expect to do the things required of a leader.  You must care about your people.

If you do not possess the human capacity to care for another individual you do not possess the capacity to lead. All authentic leaders know that if you cannot care about others you will not succeed, long term, as a leader. 

The good news is that you can learn to care. You can learn to invest time with your people instead of spending time on them. 

Invest your time learning about them as people. You’re not likely to care about an employee number but you just might care when you see them as a person, just like other people you care about. 

Slow down, learn about the motivations, the goals, the aspirations, and even the challenges of your people. They are real! They matter, your success depends on them. 

It’s tough to care about people you don’t know about and it’s impossible to lead people you don’t care about. If you think you can you’re even misleading yourself.