Category: Leadership

Whose shoes?

This week, I was writing about fulfilling a customer’s needs and probably ended up rambling a bit too much. However, one notion took up residence in my head and is refusing to vacate. I’m hoping that by sharing here, it might leave me alone for a little while.

Our customers are looking for solutions to their problems and fulfillment for their desires. Your product or service is irrelevant outside this framework. A customer doesn’t decide to hand you money simply because you added a new feature. They do business with you because you solve their problems or meet their desires better than any other options they currently know about. So, those problems and desires need to be at the front of your every thought.

Nuanced in this expression, is the idea that “meeting their desires” often involves helping a customer fulfill their image of themselves. I don’t buy Nike shoes because they protect my feet any better than a New Balance pair, but because I like to think of myself (or perhaps, want others to think of me) as the type of person who wears Nike.

And for their part, Nike understands this perfectly. They don’t advertise the technical specs of their newest sneakers. Hell, they don’t even show their shoes in half their ads. They understand perfectly the need that they are fulfilling.

Try telling me they’re selling shoes…

The overused and annoyingly cliched example from the tech-world is “No one really wants to buy a 1/4 inch drill bit, they all want to buy a 1/4 inch hole“. You might make the best drill bit in the entire world, but if someone came along selling 1/4 inch holes, you’d be in trouble!

You’ve probably experienced what happens when organizations lose sight of their customer’s needs – eroding customer service is a pretty obvious sign, but a lack of commonsense is worse! Nothing is more cringe-worthy than: “I’m sorry, I’d love to help, but company procedure tells me I have to do it this way.”

So… stop it! Stop thinking about your organization from your own shoes. Get yourself and every employee closer to your customer and help remove the sterilizing barriers that prevent your folks from really understanding your customers and their desires. There’s no excuse for an engineer who’s never seen their product in action (not just in the lab!) or for a salesperson who’s never experienced the whole cycle from the other side. Freud would be proud – even calling it the “other side” shows the implicit bias of viewpoint we carry around.

So, take off your Nike’s and put on whatever pair your customers are walking around in. Relentlessly pursue an understanding of their problem and bust your butt to solve it.


Building Trust

Building a great organization is hard work, but it’s even harder without a culture of trust. Here’s some thoughts on build up a healthy “soil” for trust to grow:

  • Give time and space for folks to grow and fail and learn.
  • Give authority and trust others to exercise it.
  • Outcome fairness doesn’t exist, but procedural fairness is key (a shout-out to my SeattleU friends for this one!)
  • Communicate. Then communicate some more. Then over-communicate.
  • “No surprises”. If that unfortunate day comes when you’re parting ways with an employee, it shouldn’t be a surprise. This isn’t to postpone terminations, but to encourage the tough talks when they can still be effective.
  • Share information and share data. Knowledge is power, hence hoarding information is fear of sharing power.
  • Talk less, listen more.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be kind.
  • Ask for advice.
  • Never make humor at someone’s expense.
  • Require candor – when it’s easy, but especially when it’s hard.
  • Do it for the right reasons.


Let’s talk about meetings – sorry!

Everyone’s got an opinion on meetings. Bezos has his “two-pizza” rule on group size. Satya convenes his leadership team meeting for 4 hours each week and 8 hours once a week. I’ve met folks who eschew all meetings as a waste of time and other’s who use staff meetings as their primary mode of getting status updated from their staff (hint: neither is probable right!). Patrick Lencioni even wrote a great book aptly titled Death by Meetingwhich I’ll borrow liberally from below.

My biggest pet-peeve is the meeting without an purpose/agenda or the recurring team meeting where everyone goes around in a circle and brings up their own topics. There’s no focus, so there’s no results. Even worse, half the team is probably on their cell phone, waiting for their chance to talk. Ugh!

First, let’s agree that communication and alignment are big areas for improvement in most organizations. If so, we shouldn’t ignore the help that meetings and other structured methods provide. I’m not sure my recipe is right, but I like the flavor of it. Here’s the structure:

Daily Stand-up

Each morning at the beginning of the day, each formal team should group up for about five minutes. The agenda is purely tactical; the schedule for the day, urgent issues, priority jobs and cascading communication. A “round the room” format is great, giving each person the opportunity to give their quick update. Important things to keep in mind:

  • I think the biggest advantage of the morning standup is on the team-building side. Many folks only interact with each other when issues pop up, so they build relationships and communication methods around that framework. By chatting each morning in a friendly environment, they build a relationship that is built on trust – which makes handling the eventual issues so much easier, because they can usually see things from both perspectives.
  • The cash cost of these meetings is not insignificant when considered across an entire year. So, it’s important to keep the stand-up short, on point and prevent it from becoming stale. It helps to focus on the cascading communication you want to share.

Weekly Business Plan Review

This is the meat and potatoes for any leadership team. Reading about Ford’s turnaround, I became a big fan of Alan Mulally’s “Business Plan Review”, but meeting him in person sealed the deal and sold me on this format with a couple tweaks:

  • First up, some sort of 5 minute activity to bring everyone’s attention into the room. I like using quick lean teaching exercises to help reinforce the methodology we should be using to improve.
  • Next, financial reporting. A quick review of key performance metrics for the entire company. Recommend green/yellow/red coding and including targets.
  • Next, team reporting. A quick five minute report form each leader on the progress of their portion of business plan. It’s important that their plan aligns with the organizations strategy and has measurable indicators that allow the team to easily assess progress and hold each other accountable. If something is off-track, now isn’t the time to solve the issue, but it is the time to assign resources to get the plan back on track.

Again, this meeting isn’t the time for the leader to query specific tasks or for problems to be discussed deeply. It’s also absolutely not a round-table where each leader just brings their own list of pet-topics to preach about. It’s about the team holding themselves and each other accountable for reaching a shared set of targets. I love this structure because it often diagnoses root cause issues:

  1. Some individuals consistently miss their targets.
  2. The organization’s or individual’s targets are consistently unreasonable for the available resources.
  3. Targets are consistently achieved. 🙂

A couple rules: No cell phones, no laptops, start on-time, be tough on issues and be soft on people.

Monthly Performance Review

Transparency, win or lose, is important. Imagine playing a football game for 60 minutes and at the end the referee just says “okay, we’re all done!” No one finds out the score. No one knows how many yards anyone got, how many tackles, who won, which player did great… nothing! You’ve got to have measurements and you’ve got to share those measurements with the folks that can actually pull the levers that have an effect.

For this monthly meeting, bring together leaders throughout the organization (anyone with a direct report) and quickly review the financial performance and other key measurable objectives. Keep it visual, clear to understand and keep it quick. Most importantly, give kudos to the teams that succeeded.

This meeting can be an interesting test of your organization’s alignment. Because you have each team leader present, you have someone representing each aspect of the business. If someone present doesn’t have a metric that they can directly affect, you’ve got a problem with alignment. The goal here is to draw a big sharpie line connecting the actions of each team with the organization’s targets. Employee’s shouldn’t have to jump through mental hoops to figure out how they have an impact.

1:1 Coaching

I used to prefer random chats throughout the week to provide coaching and status check-ins, but realized this causes anxiety for some folks and doesn’t allow teammates to bring their own questions and feedback to the table.

Scheduling a weekly check-in with each member of the team solves this issue. As a latte-addicted Seattle-ite, I really enjoy grabbing coffee and just working through the current roadblocks that are holding folks back. It’s also a great time to provide candid feedback, both positive and constructive.

Lastly, here are two recurring email patterns, that I found helpful.

“Friday” Message

Emails, memos and training don’t singularly change culture, but they can help emphasize the right things. If you can get into the habit of it, it’s a low overhead communication method that can be reinforce culture and strategy. Potential messages include: monthly performance, employee kudos, business plan updates, cool projects/sales wins, cultural reinforcements, customer/supplier highlights and new hire welcomes.

Weekly Status

I’ve gone hot and cold on this one in various roles, but I think it depends on the complexity of the team your leading and the tasks being worked on. The potentially micro-management style of updating the team with a list of high priority tasks is a little contrary to the Business Plan Review from above, but can help keep everyone on the same page and ensure that folks with different communication styles get taken care of. Again, it depends on the type of team your working with, but can be helpful!

That’s all folks!

So… what’s you’re preferred structure? Do you have a type of meeting you particularly love or hate?


Assume Positive Intent

People are messy! I don’t mean cluttered or unorganized, though they often are. I mean that people are unpredictable, complex and confusing.

Two people in the same situation will hardly ever react identically. This is beautiful, because it creates the diverse world we live in, but it’s also frustrating because it makes other people’s actions so bewildering. “Why would they do that??” becomes the common question. How folks even perceive an event or experience is highly affected by their past experiences. This means that before we even get to a reaction, it’s likely you and I will think that things happened subtly different. In some ways we’re lucky that folks in an organization or community get along as well as they do!

Yet, we can do better! I don’t know a solution that will allow us to always interpret other’s actions, but we can talk about a better way to try. Don’t assume malice. Don’t jump straight to the conclusion that other folks are acting with an evil intention. Assume positive intent!

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

“Hanlon’s Razor” by Robert Hanlon

I dislike this quote, because it implies that stupidity is the next step up from malice, so I’d edit it slight. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by anything else. Yes, stay alert for folks who do have malice in their hearts and are looking to take advantage of others, but don’t jump straight to that conclusion.

Sometimes people make stupid mistakes. Sometimes people act emotionally or jump to illogical conclusions. But everyone’s got their own background and brings their own experience that affects their opinion and actions. This variety isn’t something to be “tolerated”, but should be actively sought out. Relevantly, HBR posted an research article yesterday that showed when women are on corporate boards, male CEOs tend to be less overconfident and “less aggressive in risk-taking, yielding better results for shareholders.” The point here isn’t simply to find women to add to a board, but to build a diverse team!

The more diverse any organization or community becomes, the more diverse the opinions become and the more friction you might run into. You can help by looking to understand. It can be as simple as asking the question with an open mind. Try listening without any intent to reply, just truly listening.

There are certainly a handful of malicious people out there and more than a handful of grumps. But the majority of folks (and most of those grumps too!) are just trying to do their best. Listen, actively listen, without judgement and you’ll find that diversity in thought and experience makes the world so much more incredible.


Tough Conversations

Leading people involves a lot of conversations. Most of them are wonderful, but some are incredibly hard.

At the extreme end, no one likes firing people, but a manager simply won’t avoid that hard conversation at some point in their career.

However, the tough conversations that don’t involve employee termination are often entirely avoided… even when they’re the best way to avoid that ultimate action! More importantly, tough conversations can be some of the most rewarding and impactful you’ll have. It’s the ability to have tough conversations that helps separate a manager from a leader.

What sort of conversations are we talking about? Perhaps it’s with a teammate who’s always 5 minutes late. Maybe talking with employee who’s performance isn’t meeting the standard. Some of the toughest conversations are with and about abrasive personalities – folks who get all the results, but are impossible to work with.

Often, tough conversations aren’t even about bad performance. It could simply be talking with your star employee about their future path – knowing it might lead her to take that next step and leave your team.

But for this post, we’re going to stick to those “performance” conversations. I feel strongly that they don’t happen often enough! Let’s be clear, folks don’t deserve to be chewed out every day. Instead, folks deserve to get timely and honest feedback on how and what they’re doing!

Too often, positive feedback is heaped on, while negative feedback is reserved and held back. Finally, the situation boils over and a big conflict is put on the menu.

Like sharply veering a car, the dramatic change in direction is disorienting and worrisome for everyone.

A better option!

Instead, leaders should seek to constantly review and improve their team. Feedback should be given in a timely and kind way… but also with complete candor. Remember, there’s a difference between acting kind and being kind! True kindness involves eliminating the ambiguity that far too many employees feel: “Am I really doing a good job?”, “Should I be worried about my job?

Addressing issues quickly and with complete candor. Some ups and downs, but no surprises!

In my experience, people enjoy receiving honest feedback and become far better for it! Employees begin to correct bad behavior and work on their performance. It shouldn’t be a surprise. 99.9% of folks want to do a good job, they just need to know what is expected of them.

My favorite example is the “always tardy” teammate. One morning, traffic and daycare conspired to make him 15 minutes late in the morning. But, to his surprise, no one said anything! The following week, when daycare drop off again took longer than expected, he arrived late and… no one said anything! Now this fellow had been stressing every morning for months. Getting the kids ready for school and coordinating bus schedules was making his morning commute rather tight, but apparently it wasn’t a big deal to show up 15 minutes late! What a dramatic difference those 15 minutes would make in his morning! So, assuming it was okay (after all, no one had ever said anything), he began arriving late most mornings. He stayed later in the afternoon to get his work done and he relieved his early morning stress. Unfortunately, he was also happily ignorant of his bosses building frustrations.

On the other side of things, his manager saw the first tardy arrival, but didn’t make much of it. On the second occurrence, he meant to ask him if everything was okay in the morning, but got busy with meetings and memos throughout the day. Now, weeks later, this manager silently fumes each morning as his tardy employee arrives smiling. Well… his annual performance review is coming up next month, so he’ll just discuss it with him then!!

What a silly problem we have on our hands – and only because of a lack of communication. There are so many solutions! Perhaps moving the employee’s scheduled start time later is acceptable for the position? If the start time can’t be moved, at least the employee will understand the frustration he’s causing his team and adjust his schedule accordingly. But, nothing will happen without having the conversation! Rather, something might happen, but it is bound to catch the employee entirely by surprise and cause further frustration between both sides!


Up and out!

Sometimes having tough conversations will lead to the same eventual outcome. An employee just might not be the right fit for a position or company. Setting clear expectations through clarity and conversation is necessary, but it doesn’t always work out! In these cases, you’ll expedite the situation and help the teammate grow on the way. Further, should you end up separating with the employee, you’ll do so with the good conscience.

The goal.

More often, I’ve had outcomes like the graph above. Receiving direct feedback and coaching is incredible. People correct their poor behaviors and reinforce the great ones! You’ve seen this outcome without realizing it. Some mediocre employee leaves your company (or is terminated) only to become an all-star somewhere else. You’ve probably thought “wow… that place must have low standards” or “huh, they were really holding back“.

More likely though, they finally started to receive the coaching and conversations they needed to become the best version of themselves. Wouldn’t you like to be the leader that makes others better? Start by having those tough conversations.

People are projects – embrace it!


The Law of Horizontal Surfaces

Are you looking for an “easy” way to improve safety? How about profitability? Throughput? Order Velocity? Quality?

Well, there is no easy way. But, cleanliness is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit available – and it has a positive affect on nearly everything. It may seem mundane, but cleanliness should nearly always be your first target.


We’re not talking about the bodily cleanliness (which we all practice…), but cleanliness in your office, work area, computer or otherwise! Give the example below a consideration.

The left side makes for a great game, but a less entertaining work area.

Which situation is easier to find Waldo? In which situation do you think it would be easier to find the tool or file you’re looking for?

You’ve heard it before… “I have a system! I know where everything is!“. Well, sorry! Even if you live in a vacuum and no one else will ever interact with your area, I’ve yet to meet the person who’s work gets better the more cluttered they are!

Even worse, in a production environment, clutter allows parts to be forgotten and quality to slip. The problem might not be as catastrophic as in an operating room, but it’s definitely a big problem for your customers!

Horizontal Surfaces

Here’s the general rule: if you’ve got a horizontal surface, something will collect on it.

In a more general term, your stuff will expand to take up the space available. Get a bigger house and somehow it will fill up.

The more counter-space, the more appliances. The larger your storage cart, the more work-in-progress that will pile up. The bigger your desk, the more papers you can clutter. The larger the worktable, the more tools that will be left out.

Clutter is a viscous cycle. The more clutter you have, the more space you’ll need and ask for. The more space you get, the more clutter you’ll collect.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Understanding the Law of Horizontal Surfaces allows you to leverage it in the inverse. If clutter expands to take up the space available, reduce the space! It’s simple and rather straightforward. Remove a work-cart, shrink the available work area, eliminate a table.

If the space is available to you, start now! Don’t even wait to finish reading!! 🙂

If you’re working with folks to improve their work center, get them involved! Please, don’t just show up and authoritatively take away workspace… You’ll only stress folks out and encourage them to hunker-down against you. Change management is hard, but it’s the only recipe for lasting results.

Thanks for reading!


PS – Don’t even get me started on manufacturing spaces with doors over the shelves and covers around the cluttered areas to make them “look” good. Choose to be good instead.

Accountability = Clarity + Authority

People often call for more accountability, when they’re really asking for repercussions. Without bringing up the Webster’s definition of accountability, let’s define it as:

The state of an organization that allows an individual’s obligations to be satisfied

I don’t know if that definition is accurate or all-encompassing, but it’s worked for me. Let’s break it further down into it’s parts.

  1. The state of an organization,
  2. that allows
  3. an individual’s obligations,
  4. to be satisfied.

1- The state of an organization…

First, we have to understand that accountability is a condition or trait of an organization. That organization can be an entire company, a small cohort, a family, a political party or a sports team. Importantly, it’s not an action taken on an individual.

2- That allows…

Second, accountability must go hand-in-hand with authority. This authority might be small or large, but it must be explicit and applied consistently. If I ask my kid to mow the lawn, I’ve got to trust him with lawnmower – it would be ridiculous to expect him to get the job done with scissors. Similarly, if you’re asking an employee to lead a department, you’ve got to trust them with the authority to get the job done. Yes, they might exercise that authority and make decisions differently than you might, but that’s where the third part comes in.

3- An individual’s obligations…

Third, obligations must be clear and agreed. A hazy assignment is just as bad as an assignment unilaterally assigned without input. To achieve accountability, we’ve got to agree on what the goal is and how we’re going to get there. Rather than defining the exact path, I prefer to put of some guardrails and let the teammate learn and grow on their own. Consider the image below.

A learning playground
A couple defined guardrails and a clear defined goal

Certainly, this requires more conversation and forethought than most delegation is given, but it’s critical to set your team up for success. You’ll be amazed at the creativity, growth and learning that will take place if you give folks the space to learn and the safety to fail a few times. Some obligations might have a larger or smaller playground, depending on your appetite for risk and how critical the assignment is, but the recipe stay the same.

4- To be satisfied.

Finally, the obligation must be satisfied.

There are no half-measures and there are no participation prizes. In the happy and likely event that your teammate fully satisfies the obligation, you should have an appropriate debrief. Synthesizing the experience is just as important as the experience and result itself.

If the obligation is not fully satisfied, you still need to have an appropriate debrief. We’re all going to screw up or miss the shot occasionally, but the conversation needs to happen. In the best case, you’ll discover the root cause and set the teammate up for success in the future. I firmly believe that all mistakes can be assigned to the “training budget”, if handled properly.

In another best case scenario, your conversation will unearth that the teammate isn’t in a position they can succeed at. You’ll be doing your job as a coach by helping them move on to a position where they can succeed and grow. Sometimes this position won’t be in your organization anymore and that’s okay! You’re doing a person no favors by keeping them in a position where they can’t meet their obligations.

The only bad scenario, is not having the these conversations. There’s no excuse for failure to give appropriate feedback and failure to take action.

Wrap up!

Accountability isn’t about repercussions. When someone rants about the “lack of accountability” in their organization, I hear a totally different message. They’re often unknowingly diagnosing an organization where feedback is withheld, actions are delayed and obligations are vague. The proper medicine for this diagnosis is implementation of real accountability: “The state of an organization that allows an individual’s obligations to be satisfied

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