I’ll Be Your Huckelberry

During a management meeting, the president said, “I’m not sure we can save the Western Division. Sales continue to decline, employees keep quitting and morale is in the pits.”

Managers sat quietly, fidgeting with their devices and avoiding eye contact. After what seemed like an eternity—probably fifteen or twenty seconds—Albertson spoke up, “I’m your Huckleberry!”

All eyes turned to Albertson. “What did you say?” asked the president.

“I’d like to lead the division,” replied Albertson. “I think we need to replace a couple of people, reduce the number of brands, and improve relationships with our dealers. Give me six months. Then we can reevaluate.”

When you observe a troubled department, consider volunteering to lead the group. But first, make sure you are empowered to replace personnel and improve customer service. If you do these two things, you have a chance of improving performance. Higher management will see great value in you. That’s how legends are made.

Of course, there is a chance you will fail; but if management has already labeled the department “terminal,” you will not likely be stigmatized.

The phrase, “I’ll be you huckleberry,” apparently appeared among the Knights of King Arthur and more recently as a movie line from Doc Holiday to Wyatt Earp. Translation, “I’m the person for the job.”


Sometimes Leaders Must Choose Between Mission and Morale

Wednesday morning, an employee said to his manager, “I need to take Thursday and Friday off.”

“Why?” the manager asked.

“My parents are passing through on their way to Colorado.  They want to spend a couple of days with us.”

“I can’t let you off this week.  You got to finish your cost estimates by Friday.”

“I’ve got most of the work done.  Someone else can complete it.”

“I don’t have anyone else.  You’ll have to work Thursday and Friday.”

Almost two thirds of the supervisors I survey say that morale is more important than performance.  I agree that employee morale is very important.  However, there are times when leaders must choose between morale and mission.

Unless the employee situation is extraordinary–an unexpected illness of a family member for example–I suggest that leaders prioritize mission.

By denying the employee’s request, the leader chose mission over morale.  The employee fumed and complained bitterly to his peers, but he did stay and complete his project.

To avoid permanent morale loss, the leader will need to find some way in the coming weeks to reward the employee for his sacrifice.  While leaders can survive short-term morale dips, few can successfully cope with long-term, low morale.

Avoid Complaining, Explaining and Blaming

During a regular monthly meeting, the general manager (GM) prodded division manager Darrel Winston.  “Darrel,” said the GM, “your actual- to-planned revenue is underwater.”

“I know,” complained Darrel,” I’m dealing with some new customer contacts and they are questioning everything.  Every time new people come on board, they think they have to rework our agreements.”

The next month, Darrel is behind again and he explained, “Well, it took me awhile to reassure my new contacts.  That has caused a delay in approving shipments.  I think my numbers will look pretty good next month.”

But Darrel’s numbers did not look so good the following month and Darrel blamed regulations.  “The new environmental regulations are ridiculous.  I’ve spent a full two weeks compiling data to meet some bureaucrat’s red tape demands.”

Low performers who react by complaining, explaining or blaming see themselves as victims–as in “Woe is me; I must be the unluckiest human on the planet.”

Victims are not motivated to change their behaviors.  Rather, they focus on selling their victimhood and escaping accountability.   From low performers, I want to hear sincere commitments to improve supported by thoughtful actions intended to put a charge in their performance.

As one wit said, “Just because you can explain what happened does not mean that you get to keep your job.”

Front-Line Supervisors–Two Different Approaches

Here is a brief account of what employees of two front-line supervisors said about their leaders.

Josie’s staff members commented:

“Josie is available and we can go to her at any time, but she does not look over our shoulders all of the time.”

“I’ll tell you one thing; you know where you stand with Josie.  She sure lets you know when she is disappointed with you.”

“I overheard Josie talking with her peers.  She was really bragging on us.”

Crew members who worked for Alexis had different comments.

“He is on the floor all of the time.  He knows how he wants things done and he watches us like a hawk.”

“I like that Alexis is very good about recommending people for salary increases and promotions.”

“Alexis is very smart.  He can do every job out here and he can do most of them better than anyone here.  He loves to talk about the work.”

Although both groups were doing similar work in the same company, Josie’s team performed significantly better.

Research by Sartain and Baker appearing in the HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, conclude that the more effective front-line managers:  (1) allow employees a little more freedom; (2) they are more direct with performance feedback; and (3) they talk about their employees more than the work itself.

Don’t Pass the Buck to Grandma

pass-buckA six-year old picks up rocks and begins throwing them in the backyard water feature.  “Grandma doesn’t want you to throw rocks in the water,” Grandpa warned.

“Don’t tell Grandma,” replied the six-year old.

We can marvel at the quick-thinking six-year old’s recommendation, but it was Grandpa who committed the faux pas.   Not wanting to take responsibility for enforcing a policy of “no throwing rocks in the pond,” Grandpa passed the buck to Grandma.

A more adult correction from Grandpa might have sounded like, “I think it best that you stop throwing rocks in the pond.  The rocks could clog the drainage or damage the pump.”  That is, Grandpa could take ownership of the correction and explain why.

I observe many parallel, buck-passing actions of less effective leaders.  A newly-appointed manager explained to an employee, “Because of your excessive absenteeism, Human Relations requires that I reprimand you.”

In response to requests from front-line managers to provide more vacation time to employees, the Regional Manager said, “The CEO believes that our current policy is very competitive.”  An employee denies a customer’s request with, “It’s against company policy.”

Effective leaders understand their organizations’ policies and accept responsibility for executing them; that is, they ‘own’ the policies.  For example, “Because of your unexcused absences, consistent with our policy, I’ve decided to write you a reprimand.  If you continue to miss work, there could be additional consequences.  I don’t want that to happen.”


The Paradox of Power: Part 2

power-corrupts-16Ralph was a bright, young financial analyst who quickly gained the respect of all.  Co-workers described Ralph as insightful, cooperative, helpful and quick to assist others.

When the department manager retired, the CEO promoted Ralph to head the financial analysis team.  Because of his unusual talent and cooperative nature, the financial team was very supportive of Ralph’s promotion.

Over the next several months, team members noticed changes in Ralph’s demeanor.  “I don’t know what has happened to Ralph,” said one, “but he has become very impatient.”  Another said, “Ralph tends to get defensive if you disagree with him.”  A third said, “Ralph is more closed with information, and I saw him act vindictively toward a team member who questioned his decision.”

Psychology professor, Dacher Keltner, in his book The Power Paradox, suggests that power often tempts many leaders to hide unflattering data, manipulate, exaggerate, and punish those who do not support.

Said differently, leaders acquire power by being open, helpful, transparent, and supportive.  But when they achieve power, many leaders become more closed, manipulative and punitive.  

British historian, Lord Action said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Effective leaders guard against corrupting practices by surrounding themselves with capable people who have the courage to say, “But the emperor has no clothes.”