The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

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Professional Effectiveness or Personal Fortitude?

Chances are you’ve at some point known or worked with someone who has endured a significant personal crisis.  Perhaps it was a nasty divorce, a life-threatening personal or family illness, the loss of a spouse or child, or a similar life event that turned their world upside down.

I lost my father to a heart attack just weeks after I turned 17 years old and days before I started my senior year of high school.  I can still remember the numbness I felt as I went to school that fall, surrounded by friends whose lives were blissfully unchanged while my own was irreversibly altered.  But as difficult as it was, I persevered.  It could even be argued that it was easy for me to move forward simply because I still had my entire life before me.  But I doubt I considered that at the time.  No, I persevered because there was simply nothing else I could do.  I couldn’t reverse or change what had happened.  Like it or not, I could only adapt and move on.

As bystanders – family, friends, and co-workers, we admire the strength of those who have suffered tragedy and yet are somehow able to keep going.  Because we can only imagine their grief and anxiety, we marvel at their ability to continue doing the simplest of daily activities and can hardly understand how they’re able to keep coming to work or to class.  The fact is, like me at age 17, they do it because there is simply nothing else they can do.  They adapt and move on because there is no other option.  They have no choice.  Bills still have to be paid, mouths still have to be fed – the responsibilities of life don’t stop.

It’s human nature to sympathize with people in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But I think it’s easy to confuse sympathy with admiration, and there is an important distinction between the two.  At the risk of sounding coldhearted, to admire someone who continues to live and work after a tragedy is like admiring a sailor who swims after his boat sinks.  Do we admire him for not giving up and drowning?  Do we admire his courage?  Truth be told, most of us probably do; after all, we’re inspired by stories of perseverance and love to cheer for the underdog.   But again, what choice does he have?  He can swim and live or he can sink and die – not much of a choice.  It’s a simplistic comparison, but I think it relevant nonetheless.

The point I want to make is we have such a natural inclination to admire those who overcome tragedy, we often let it cloud the rest of our judgment about the individual.  Specifically, it’s easy to confuse what we perceive as personal fortitude with the reality of professional effectiveness.  Surely we’re inclined to assess the individual’s performance more generously in light of the adversity they’ve faced, and this is certainly the right thing to do temporarily while the person heals.  After all, no one can be expected to perform at full capacity either during or in the aftermath of a personal crisis.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the tendency to allow our permanent perception of the individual to be skewed due to whatever past tragedy they’ve endured – confusing their fortitude and resilience in moving on with their ongoing effectiveness in their job.

In short, personal fortitude is ultimately no substitute for, and is indeed in this context only marginally related to, good performance.  It’s not for me to say how long a person should be allowed to recover from a crisis.  That depends on the individual, situation, and circumstances.  However, regardless of whatever tragedy the individual has suffered in the past (or even presently endures), eventually his or her performance and professional effectiveness must be judged on its merit.  We can admire their strength and perseverance, but that alone is a poor substitution for meaningful achievement.

The Restoration of Tools and Refinement of People

I have a thing for old tools.  Not the ones with cords and plugs, mind you, but old hand tools that predate electricity.  The ones guided by hand, powered by muscle, carefully honed and meticulously cared for to retain their edge and effectiveness at doing the job for which they were intended.  These are elegant, tactile tools of history, character and quality – tools upon which the livelihood of their owner depended.  These tools didn’t sit collecting dust on shelves in garages, used casually or occasionally and allowed to rust.  These were tools of journeymen and tradesmen, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shipbuilders, and carriage makers – tools that were passed down through multiple generations.  Every one has a story to tell; every paint spot, dent, ding, scratch and chip reflects a different point in time and a different job completed.

Sadly, most of these tools eventually fell victim to post-WWII modern industrialization when mass production, cheap technology, and the population explosion shifted consumer culture from quality and durability to speed and ease of use.  Today, we’ll spend $200 on a cordless drill and toss it out when the battery no longer holds a charge.  All the while, the noble tools of iron, steel, and wood that built this country sit quietly idle, rusting away in barns and workshops and garages.  Few know how to use them, fewer still know how to restore them to functional condition, and just about everyone else wonders why bother doing either.  I am one of the relative few who does both.

Opinions on the restoration of old tools vary widely and are frequently debated within their communities of interest.  I personally believe that less is more when it comes to restoration. I like the idea of retaining a tool’s character – its scars and marks from use, its patina, etc.  I believe a tool should be cleaned and maintained in the same manner as the original craftsman who owned it would have done. A hundred years ago, these tools represented the livelihood of the owner. They were relatively expensive and the woodworkers who owned them relied on them to make a living. They would not have allowed rust to accumulate and would have cleaned and oiled them regularly.

Refining people is not unlike the restoration and care of vintage tools.  Regardless of age or experience, there are always rough edges to be eased, working mechanisms in need of adjustment, and business implements to be sharpened to produce the desired result.  People in an organization require constant tuning and ongoing maintenance in order to function at their peak capacity.  Good leaders exist, not simply as masters of the tools they wield.  Rather in the manner of fine craftsmen, they are charged with refining, tuning, and honing the tools in their care, through the edification and development of the men and women they lead.

The refinement of these human tools requires a firm but gently touch.  In time, their mettle (pun intended) is reflected in a patina developed through experience, accomplishment, and occasional failure.  Skills develop through hands on instruction and are shaped by practice.  The quality of results improves as the tool is tuned to achieve the task intended.   Adjustments are made, impurities cleaned, and accomplishment is rewarded until eventually the tool attains a confidence, character, and integrity all its own.  Shavings are gossamer thin, lines are cut straight and true, and revealed in every achievement is the precision of the tool and the influence of its custodian.

Without constant care, tools become dulled by use – corrosion slowly creeps in, alignment is eventually lost, and the ability of the tool to perform as expected is compromised.  Just as the journeyman of 100 years ago was personally responsible for the care and maintenance of his tools, so are the business leaders of people today.  In a culture where tools are deemed disposable, easily replaced by a trip to the local home center, leaders of people cannot afford to be so cavalier.  These human tools represent the livelihood of the organization. They are relatively expensive and the companies that employ them rely on them to sustain and grow the business. They must not be allowed to fall idle and rust.

Five Fundamental Principles of Service Excellence

To say that customer service is virtually non-existent today would be a comical understatement.  It seems everywhere we turn the quality of service we receive is inconsistent at best, from the waiters and sales people who ignore us to business managers who view us as interruptions.  I believe the root of the problem is not so much one of employee indifference; this is merely a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.  The real problem is a systematic failure on the part of companies and their managers to see beyond the transaction, make decisions based on intellect verses emotion, and empower their employees to be an advocate for the customer rather than ‘defender’ of the company.

Most people, if they are at all engaged in their job, want to do well.  Likewise, all companies want to be successful, and understand the value and necessity of happy customers.  So, where is the disconnect?  I believe it’s with the middle and lower level leadership.  It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that employee attitudes toward customers are a reflection of the culture created by management within the store, restaurant, or department.  I suppose there are a myriad of reasons, everything ranging from indifference and ignorance to a misguided notion of protecting the financial bottom line.  Just last week my wife asked to speak with the general manager of our dealership over a mechanical problem with our year old car that the staff was unwilling to rectify.  His response after listening to her complaint was to accuse her of being confrontational.  It is no wonder his staff was so unhelpful.

Leaders at every level bear the responsibility for maintaining a culture of service excellence, communicating expectations, and monitoring performance.  This requires personal interaction, not only with employees, but also with the customers.  Leaders can’t lead from behind a desk or though emails.  They have to get out of their offices, spend time along side their employees and participate in constant face to face interaction.  This is why you see managers in finer restaurants stop by your table to ask if everything was okay.  They understand the value of personal attention to their staff, customers, and business.  Philip K. Wrighley, chairman of the world’s largest chewing gum company, famously relayed the following story: “I went into our New York office one day and they asked who was calling. I told them it didn’t make a bit of difference. It might be a guy wanting to buy some gum – and that’s all that mattered.”

Below I’ve attempted to summarize service excellence in five fundamental principles.  Perhaps I’ve oversimplified it, but I don’t think so.  In fact, isn’t that the point?  Superior customer service really isn’t all that complicated or expensive.  Everyone should try it.

  1. Customer service is never an ‘exception’ or an ‘accommodation’
    These two words should be removed from our vocabulary.  Meeting (not to mention exceeding) a customer’s expectations should be a matter of principle.  Make decisions with enthusiasm, not reluctance, demonstrating a spirit of genuine appreciation instead of concession.
  2. Delighting a customer is a personal opportunity to be the ‘hero’
    Be the customer’s advocate in every interaction.  Customers should see us as their personal partner, not simply a representative of the company, and certainly never an adversary.  It is our job to get to ‘yes’.  Regardless of the situation, every satisfied customer reflects a personal success, and every disappointed customer reflects a personal failure.
  3. Customer service does not cost money, it earns future business
    We get far too wrapped up in our perceived sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ when making service related decisions.  Any costs incurred in delighting a customer are literally insignificant compared to the goodwill and future business we gain.  Whether or not we feel they deserve it is irrelevant.  Customer service is not a battle to be won or lost, nor is it an affront to our integrity.  Better to give in to 10 thieves than to lose one legitimate customer.
  4. The solution is always more memorable than the problem
    Problems are going to occur – products will break, deadlines will be missed, mistakes will be made.  It is how well we anticipate and resolve our customers’ problems that influences their perception of our company and their decision to give us their future business.  Never leave a customer with an unresolved problem; always initiate a solution.
  5. The customer doesn’t have to ‘be’ right for us to ‘make it right’
    It’s as simple as this… no matter who is at fault, no matter what it costs, no matter what it takes – make it right for the customer.

Building and Sustaining High Performing Sales Teams

Portrait of a High Performing Team
Almost everyone who works with others wants either to be a member of a high performing team, or to lead a high performing team.  In fact, I bet 9 out of every 10 managers I’ve ever spoken with have claimed their teams were high performing.  Yet, when asked about the performance of individual team members, these same managers invariably cite a litany of “typical” shortcomings.

While I hesitate to question the self proclaimed assessment of another manager’s team without seeing them in action for myself, I have to wonder how they came to their conclusion.  How can a high performing team be comprised of individuals with performance issues?  Can the diversity of performance strengths and capabilities within a team actually make the overall team stronger, despite certain individual weaknesses?  And how is it that these managers don’t ask themselves these same questions?

To be sure, individuals with performance problems are not high performers.  That is not to say that an employee must be perfect; indeed, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  There is a distinction, however, between weaknesses and performance problems.  Strengths and weaknesses between team members are like pieces of a puzzle.  All the pieces must fit together to complete the picture.    In the strongest teams, members should complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, assembling a team in which there is diversity of strengths should be a priority.

There’s no single recipe for building a high performing team.  The variables are simply too great.  On the other hand, there are clearly common attributes that successful teams manifest, and at the same time behavioral patterns that destroy a team’s effectiveness and their capacity for achievement.

So, what does a high performing team look like?  It’s really quite simple.  While individual strengths may vary, high performing teams exhibit many (hopefully most) of the same qualities of highly effective, influential team leaders.  At the highest level…

  • They complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • They exhibit integrity and self discipline, both individually and collectively.
  • They have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.
  • They are responsible and accountable – to their leader and each other.
  • They are enthusiastic and self-motivated.
  • They are individually and collectively aligned with the company’s vision.

Of course there are many other skills and traits that high performing teams must possess and demonstrate – effective communication, mutual trust, respect, etc., and of course they must work harmoniously together to achieve the task at hand.  Skills, however, can be taught, habits formed, and behaviors modified, while character and cultural fit are individual factors that are deeply ingrained.

High Performing Teams Begin with High Performing Individuals
Diversity, complementing strengths and skills, and achievement oriented members are all considerations when building or adding to an existing high performing team.  From a practical standpoint, assembling a high performance team begins with a thoughtful and well developed hiring process.  Recruiting often focuses on matching experience to a job specification. This is important where technical qualifications are concerned, but it will not necessarily identify people with high performance traits.  High performers are almost always high performers – wherever they work.

Who are your high performers?  According to a McKinsey & Company report on “The War for Talent,” top performing employees make a 50% to 100% greater contribution to organizations than do their less capable peers.[1] So ask yourself this, if you had to start from scratch, would you re-hire all the employees you currently have? If not, why?  If you could select from just 10% of your existing work force, who would you choose and why?

In my experience, the highest performing sales professionals demonstrate the following characteristics…

  • Achievement Oriented – Money shouldn’t be the goal, only a way of keeping score
  • Perpetually Optimistic – Doesn’t concede defeat, doesn’t accept no as an answer
  • Selling is a Lifestyle – A way of life, not just a job – they never stop selling
  • Understand Customer Motivation – People buy on emotion and excitement, not logic and reason
  • Walk in the Customers’ Shoes – Sensitive to customer’s needs vs. their own (understands difference between ability to buy and desire to buy – validates the customer’s desire)
  • Leverages the Strengths of Others – Those around them

Strategic Hiring Decisions
Research on hiring decisions reveals that people tend to hire applicants with whom they share the strongest personal connection, i.e. those with similar outlooks, mannerisms, personalities, and ideas.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter calls this phenomenon “homosocial reproduction.”[2] While this may be just fine in some cases, the implication is obvious in others.  As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton indelicately puts it, “…assholes will breed like rabbits.”[3]

That’s an extreme (albeit accurate) example, but practically speaking, everyone including the most effective managers has areas of weakness.  While we certainly don’t want to compound weaknesses, the inverse is also true.  To use the puzzle metaphor again, whitewashing over weaknesses by cloning strengths is like trying to put together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and shape.  The strongest teams are comprised of diverse personalities with complementary skills, and they use this to their advantage.  Reduce the risk of poorly influenced hiring decisions by having several managers interview a candidate and collectively participate in the decision process.

A Framework for Success
There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  A comprehensive plan helps hiring managers at each decision point by giving focus and structure to the process. With the following four-step plan, not only will you have the highest probability of making good hiring decisions, you’ll also establish a framework of success for ongoing team development.

1. Recruiting and Hiring for Excellence
Leading a high performance sales team naturally begins with the people that you hire.  You simply cannot afford to settle for the best “available” applicant, you have to find the right person for the job and team.  In building a high performing team, whether staff or management, qualification criteria should be closely examined before you ever run an employment ad or interview an applicant.  Managers tend to focus heavily on education, job experience, and presence.  These are all important, but also look closely at temperament, interpersonal skills, and character.  Hire for fit within the team.  You can always train for skill (you will probably have to anyway), but trying to train for cultural fit is an uphill battle.

2. Cultivating Success

Regardless of individual successes, a sales team is only as strong as its weakest performer.  A successful high performing team depends on each member pulling his or her weight, contributing to and complementing the team, leveraging its strengths and adding value through individual performance.  Cultivating team success involves addressing deficiencies, identifying and overcoming obstacles, and gradually redefining the very meaning of success in an existing sales environment.  This may involve rooting out underperformers, holding them to a higher level of accountability, and removing them if they are unable to meet established standards.

3. Maintaining Performance Standards
Aggressive and inclusive performance development is a key component to managing and leading high performing teams.  An integral part of the performance management process, regular coaching, feedback, and performance assessment measured against peer comparison benchmarks provide exceptionally flexible and meaningful tools for quantifying and qualifying employee performance.  In situations where progressive discipline is warranted, a consistent approach using readily available performance criteria ensures a fair and actionable case for warnings and dismissal.

4. Nurturing a High Performance Culture
I previously discussed in detail creating and nurturing a Culture of Alignment.  Developing a high performing sales culture requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science.  You have to realize, however, that any such move to alter the culture of your store and team must be carefully planned and executed.  It will not happen overnight.  In fact, it might take a few years.  But the investment is well worth the effort.


[1] Fishman, Charles. The War for Talent. Fast Company, 2007

[2] Kanter, Rosabeth. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977

[3] Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus, 2007

Delusional Effectiveness Disorder: Confusing Activity with Achievement

De-lu-sion-al  Ef-fec-tive-ness  Dis-or-der

Pronunciation: \di-‘lüzh-nəl\ \ĭ-fěk’tĭv-nes\ \dĭs-ôr’dər\

–noun

  1. a functional disorder characterized by systematized delusions of accomplishment and the projection of personal achievement, which are ascribed to the span and intensity of activity demonstrated, and manifested in the notable absence of meaningful results.
  2. delusions of grandeur
  3. slang: rectal-cranial inversion

Mission AccomplishedWe’ve all seen them.  Companies and organizations around the country are full of them.  You know who I’m talking about – you have a few in your organization right now.  I’m referring to those people who make the most noise, ask the most questions, make the most suggestions, send the most email – unrepentant self-promoters who frantically wave their banner to demonstrate to the world how busy and important they are and how tirelessly they work.  They make a big fuss and put on a great show, but actually accomplish very little.  In short, these are folks who confuse activity with achievement.

I refer to this common malady as Delusional Effectiveness Disorder.  While its origins are unknown, the presence of this condition has been noted among several business, military, and political leaders throughout history, including recent presidents.  The manifestation is essentially the same in all those infected.  Somewhere along the way in their careers, folks with DED have fallen under the illusion that recognition and advancement is the reward of working hard.  Indeed, working hard is important, but is only a meaningless shell if the effort fails to yield fruit.  (For the sake of argument I’m using “hard work” and “working hard” interchangeably and in the same context.)  To be sure, hard work is to be admired, but not simply for its own sake.  By contrast, smart work resulting in meaningful accomplishment is far more impressive. Success is the product of accomplishment, not merely the result of working hard.

Hard vs. Smart – Consider the response of the bar soap manufacturer when it discovered approximately one in every thousand of its boxes left the plant empty, resulting in numerous customer complaints.  Their team sprang to action, their best engineers were assembled, the equipment manufacturer was consulted, an extensive quality control study compiled, and a detailed plan to re-design their assembly line proposed – all at a substantial cost in time, labor, and materials.  Thankfully, a low level staffer quietly suggested that they simply set up a large fan at the end of the production line.  The empty boxes, he reasoned, were substantially lighter than those containing the bars of soap, and would therefore easily blow off the conveyor.

Or… When NASA began to launch astronauts into space, they discovered that their pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. To solve this problem, they spent one decade and $12 million.  They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on practically any surface including crystal and in temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.

And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

PelosiNow to be fair, many who are burdened with Delusional Effectiveness Disorder are fevered with the most benevolent of intentions.  In such benign cases, this unfortunate affliction is indicated by a distinct absence of malice often complicated by limited mental acuity, where genuine enthusiasm, however misguided, reflects a sincere attempt to boldly demonstrate that something (i.e., anything) is being done. The problem is that typically the “something” involves a flurry of activity that, while perhaps appearing impressive on the surface, contributes little in the way of substantive results.  It’s activity for the sake of activity with a focus on action rather than the accomplishment.  This reminds me of the adage we jokingly followed in business school when preparing case presentations: “If you can’t make it good, at least make it pretty.”  Form over substance.

Sadly, however, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is more often manifested in those primarily interested in self promotion rather than misguided enthusiasm.  These individuals are convinced that advancement will be rewarded to those demonstrating a maelstrom of activity (they’ll call it initiative).  They are masters of deception, flawlessly executing their political song and dance.  Their objective is the glorification of process – their process – rather than a measure of true accomplishment.  But what is value of initiative in the absence of achievement?  Ironically, if these people worked half as hard at actually accomplishing something as they do demonstrating how busy they are, how hard they work, and how important they are to the organization, they might truly achieve great success.  And in what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, managers in many organizations fall under the spell of this thinly veiled farce, enabling and encouraging DED induced behavior by celebrating “initiative” rather than meaningful achievement or contribution.  While the desire to recognize such initiative is presumably well intended, the effect of poisoning the morale of those with greater substance is nevertheless profound.

What are we to do?  Entire books have been dedicated to managing strategically in a highly politicized environment.  Capable, effective leaders with a well defined vision of success find no distraction by subordinates infected with DED.  They recognize that substance presents itself in many forms, sometimes very subtle, and they reward achievement.  They coach through behaviors that are unproductive to the individual, team, and organization, and re-focus efforts to the attainment of broader objectives.

Fortunately, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is not usually contagious.  In fact, those infected are typically held in leprotic contempt and shunned by peers.  While superiors often swoon with a temporary sense of euphoria, the effect wears off as time and transparency take their toll.