A Constructive Approach to Leading People, Teams, and Organizations

A situation arose recently that caused me to step back and re-assess a fundamental responsibility of organizational leaders today – how do we lead/manage people in a manner that achieves our business’ goals, meets our employees’ career development needs, and lives into a larger set of values that current day organizations should (hopefully) hold? 

It goes without saying that the demands of leadership get more difficult every day, regardless of industry sector.  The current COVID-19 pandemic crisis has made this abundantly clear.  If we weren’t already grappling with:

  • the accelerating advancements in technology,
  • our newest employees (Gen Z) calling for us to take a meaningful stand on social issues,
  • the continued steady rise of health care costs,
  • the impact of social media on the way we sell and market,
  • the virtual disappearance of geographic boundaries to our traditional markets,
  • and so much more,

the pandemic has acted like an accelerant to an already raging wildfire.   While I have often contended that business is not that difficult – make a promise, deliver on that promise – the reality is that our businesses are made up of people, each one different from the next, and getting everyone to work together toward a common goal is often just plain hard.

So, confronted with a recent situation, I thought it useful to step back from the fray and jot down some very basic principles that would re-ground me and provide a basic framework for how leaders can create a sustainable environment that supports organizational success.

# 1 – Whether you are running a company, a business unit, or an office, you will only win as an aligned team, not as a group of disparate employees focused on individual recognition and accomplishment.

That said:

  • There is a place for individual praise and recognition.  Praise is always a good thing.
  • Individual excellence generally leads to team success, so long as it is not pursued to the detriment of others.

I’ve always believed that a football squad best demonstrates the value of team focus vs. individual focus.  While it is possible for an individual player to put up exceptional numbers while playing within a team-focused framework, a team is rarely successful when one or more individual players are focused on individual statistics or awards as their primary motivation.  All you have to do is listen to great team leaders like perennial All-Pros Russell Wilson and Drew Brees following a big win, who emphasize the hardwork of their teammates in making their team’s success possible.  Notably, each has won a Super Bowl and neither has won a league MVP award, a trade-off each leader will gladly take.  We can find just as many remarkable talents who racked up big individual numbers but never advanced very far in the playoffs, often because they could not take the focus off of themselves for the good of the team.    

# 2 – Praise and/or positive feedback should be offered publicly whenever possible or appropriate.  It is reaffirming when one’s peers hear that you have done a good job, and it provides motivation to do a good job again.  However, critical and/or developmental feedback should always be delivered privately, behind closed doors. There are few things more de-motivating than being criticized in front of one’s peers, and decreases the likelihood that the coaching will be properly incorporated into future performance.

#3 – Competition between teammates can be constructive and motivating, so long as it is not used as a weapon.  Those performing well will strive for greater success, and motivated employees will take needed action to ensure they are not at the bottom.  However, constantly chastising or incessantly highlighting those at the bottom can temper their drive to succeed.  If your business requires a team to succeed, not just a few superstars, competition must be properly managed.

#4 – Words matter.  As leaders, we should always be as moderate, temperate and constructive in our language as possible, versus being inflammatory, judgmental and argumentative.  We should talk to our teammates in the same manner we would want them to speak with our customers.

#5 – Employees have a reasonable expectation to be supported by their teammates. While this may seem an obvious tenet, too often we are not observant, and we don’t see that someone is in fact drifting out in open water, with no one helping them back in the boat.  As leaders, we need to ensure that our employees are not just all in the boat together, but in fact pulling the oars in the same direction, focused on the same destination.

#6 – Employees have a reasonable expectation to enjoy what they do.  Presuming that an employee likes their functional work (and is good at it), it is in our best interest to make the performance of the work a pleasant experience.  We want them to be excited to get out of bed each day, come to work, and take good care of our customers.  And hopefully it is enjoyable for us too! 

#7 – This is arguably the most important principle, because it speaks to culture, the linchpin for any effective leader. It is the responsibility of an organization – and by direct extension its leader – to create and support a business environment in which focused, motivated professionals can perform their job functions to the best of their ability. Provided that the organization’s business strategy is sound, a leader who succeeds in this component of their job cannot help but be successful.

That said, there is a corollary to this principle, which is that it is not the responsibility of an organization to cater to every desire of every employee.  That would lead to chaos.  An essential component of an organization’s culture is an established set of norms to which all employees generally adhere.  These norms, set by the organization’s culture, lead to the concept of ‘fit’.  At one time or another we have all said something along the lines of “’Joe’ was a bad fit.”  Sometimes when a bad fit exists, it is the fault of the organization, often due to there being a weak culture.  However other times it’s literally just a bad fit, and no one is to blame.

#8 – There is no value to keeping a private scorecard of ‘gotchas’, either for an employee or their manager.  Leaders should take a holistic approach to the performance of each employee, constantly assessing their value to the team and the organization, both short-term and long-term.  No one has ever shared with me that the reason their long-term marriage is successful is because they kept a scorecard of their spouse’s past slip-ups that they can refer to whenever it benefits them in an argument.

#9 – It seems obvious, but it’s worth overtly stating – no intelligent leader or organization is interested in seeing an employee fail.  There is too much of an investment made in an employee’s hiring and development to hope for failure.  The most sensible path is always managing toward success. 

#10 – While #9 is true, it is equally true that not every employee ends up being successful in your organization.  Even when the cultural fit is good, there are times when an employee simply cannot meet the expectations of the role and a change must be made for the good of the organization. When such a situation arises, leaders understand that such a change is also for the ultimate good of the employee. People deserve to have an opportunity to be successful.  As part of a professional termination process, leaders should guide them toward an alternative path that can lead to their personal success elsewhere.

When I first wrote these down this unnumbered list of principles, I had no idea there would be ten of them, but somehow that seems appropriate, as they really do form the bedrock for a sensible approach for creating culture, leading people, and wrestling with the day to day challenges of managing a diverse staff of employees.  I have great confidence that anyone who implements these principles will be well on their way to creating the type of organization that motivated professionals would want to work for, and that your competitors would not want to compete against.

So go forth and lead.

One response to “A Constructive Approach to Leading People, Teams, and Organizations

  1. Outstanding blog, Dale. Insightful, clear, concise, and compelling. Besides appreciating your thinking on such a vital part of business, also appreciate your writing talent! Thanks for the difference you’re making in the workplace.

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