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.

12 Rules for Success: A Father’s Advice to his Kids

father-and-child

  1. Don’t despair in failure
    Be strengthened in your resolve to succeed.  Failure is temporary.  Rather than being discouraged, learn to leverage failure as an instrument for learning and an opportunity for strengthened resolve.  Remember, every hurdle cleared is one less obstacle between you and your objective.  Should you stumble and fall, fall forward.
  2. Never give up
    Be a relentless tormentor of your objectives.  Be both patient and persistent, focusing on the objectives, not the obstacles.  If you believe in your course, persevere to the end, even in the face of great adversity or overwhelming odds.  Never give up.
  3. Never compromise your principles
    It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Your principles should be absolute, upheld with unwavering conviction.  Personal preferences, on the other hand, warrant flexibility.  Know the difference between the two – when to be firm, and when to be flexible.
  4. Own your mistakes
    Admit your mistakes, embrace them, and learn from them.  Don’t hide them and never ever deflect responsibility to someone else.  The future has an uncanny way of revenging past deception.  Take ownership and live with the consequences.
  5. Challenge convention; question assumptions
    Question what everyone else takes for granted or assumes to be true.  Ambiguity and change is unsettling.  Consistency is comfortable and people often become unwittingly trapped by complacency or conjecture.  Acceptnothing without confirmation or validation and challenge others who do.  Remember the old saying; sacred cows make the best burgers.
  6. Show integrity in the smallest of things
    Integrity is the resolve to do the right thing even when no one else will know you’ve done it.  It’s returning a shopping cart to the cart return, turning in the sunglasses you found, leaving your name and number on the car you accidentally bumped.  Integrity is rooted in the foundation of character.  It’s not rewarded by recognition, but sustained by a personal conviction of right and wrong.
  7. Lead from the front
    …from over your shoulder and within arms reach.  You have to touch the people you lead; walk among them and share in their burdens and triumphs.  Lead face to face – not from an office, not through memorandums or phone calls or email. Show, don’t tell, and don’t ask anyone to do what you are unwilling to do yourself.
  8. Establish a sphere of influence
    Everyone needs advocates, people resolute in their support while unequivocal in their candor.  Surround yourself with an inner circle of trusted friends and family who will champion your cause while providing honest, constructive feedback and advice.  Learn to leverage their strengths to counterbalance your weaknesses.
  9. Learn to ask questions
    Rather than trying to learn all the answers, it’s far more important to learn what questions to ask.  Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being once observed, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”  The ability to ask intelligent, relevant, and insightful questions is supremely valuable and uncommonly rare.  One final thought… know the distinction between asking for information and asking for affirmation.
  10. Pick your battles carefully
    Life is not fair; injustice sometimes prevails.  Still, not every conflict warrants a fight.  Like it or not, our world is complicated by political influences, and it’s easy to win a battle and still lose the war.  Consider what is to be gained and lost, and keep your eye on the larger objective.
  11. Master the language
    It might sound old-school in the age of texting, tweeting, and social networking, but a mastery of language communicates as much credibility and commands as much respect as a pedigree diploma, perhaps more.  Language skills in our society have become appallingly poor.  By contrast, a broad vocabulary brandished with flawless spelling, punctuation, and grammar is an incredibly powerful asset.
  12. If you speak, speak thoughtfully with purpose, confidence, and authority; otherwise, be silent
    Don’t speak simply to be heard.  Have something relevant to say.  “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost

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