“Protect Your Flanks” is a chapter in my newly published THE UNFORCED ERROR. I gave it quite a lot of thought before I decided whether or not to feature it in the book, but in the end, felt it was too critical a topic to omit.
That’s because all organizations have some sort of office politics, no matter how much you (and I) might hate the thought. According to author and career expert Dr. Kathleen Reardon, people with “political savvy, agility in the use of power, and the ability to influence others will go further.”
That’s why it is so important to protect your flanks.
You need to use all of your contacts within the organization to be sure no one is bad mouthing you to your boss. I have seen this scenario play out countless times and it is never pretty. In fact, it’s downright unethical and even immoral. What right does one person have to play with your career and your livelihood? Yet it happens every day in almost all organizations of every size. You have to have enough contacts and be plugged in to the company grapevine or you risk having the rug pulled out from under you before you know that you’re standing on one. How do you do this?
Seek out people in the organization. If you do not make friends, at least make acquaintances. And don’t limit it to people in your own department or work area. It could be people in other departments that have the ear of your boss. Perhaps you made an enemy without even knowing it, or perhaps people are just jealous of your success. Regardless of the specific circumstances, you have to establish a friendly, informal network within the organization so that you are not the last to know that you are in the doghouse—and possibly on your way to the poorhouse if you get canned.
One other piece of advice is more straight forward. Talk to your boss on a regular basis. Ask her if there are things you can be doing to help her make her goals—and the goals of the division. And do not wait for a performance review to find out what things you can do to raise the level of your game. These informal conversations will provide ample opportunity for your boss to let you know if there is a problem or any other issue that may have a profound affect on your future.
In recent postings I have discussed specifics of hiring and firing and making sure that you seek out strong subordinates. (If you missed any of those just scroll down).
While not firing under-performers soon enough is the most common unforced error relating to dismissing people there is another one: firing the wrong people. This happens all of the time, particularly in tough times with a near-ten percent unemployment rate. When budgets are tight, companies try to save money by trimming payrolls. When this happens, it is easy for the manager to surrender to the numbers and cut the most highly compensated employees. This can be a huge unforced error.
Circuit City provides a perfect example: In March of 2007, its CEO, Phil Schoonover fired 3,400 of its most seasoned and productive salespeople. The company was losing money and the CEO felt the best idea was to get his highest-paid salespeople off the payroll. That decision proved to be an unforced error of the worst kind. That’s because these were the company’s most talented and knowledgeable salespeople. Eighteen months later CEO Schoonover was out of a job and three months later Circuit City was in bankruptcy.
Building a first rate team is not just about choosing the right people to hire. It is also about choosing the right people to fire. And getting rid of the wrong people can be just as harmful as hiring the wrong ones. So when the time comes when someone has to go, do your due diligence and be sure to choose very carefully.
Many managers are afraid to hire people better than themselves. That’s a huge unforced error. As Jack Welch once said, “the smartest people in the world hire the smartest people in the world.”
If you hire weak perfomers, “Bs” and “Cs” rather than “A’s,” you are doing yourself and your organization a serious disservice. This is something that great business thinkers have understood for quite some time.
One of the most surprising things I learned about Peter Drucker was how he felt about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While most historians and citizens from the era regarded FDR as a great leader, Drucker felt that our 32nd president was so insecure that he sought to “undercut” anyone he viewed as a threat. That convinced Drucker that FDR was a poor administrator and a weak leader in important areas.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, felt the same way about hiring. He said that management’s first priority is not coming up with the right strategy, but making sure that you have the right people “on the bus.” All else follows getting the right team on board first.
If you fear so much for your job that you would consider hiring a sub-par performer, then you have already lost. The most effective leaders know this in their bones, which is why they try to fill every position with strength. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses is a key theme in The Unforced Error. It is the responsibility of every manager to bring strength to his or her organization whether we are talking about products, ideas, or people—especially people.
Today I came across an interesting list that I think is worthy of at least a quick look. It can be found on an unusual site:
One of the most interesting things about the list of 101 books is that it includes both great classics as well as other lesser known books. On the classics side, they include—Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Amy Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, and Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence.
Lastly, they divide the list for reader’s ease of use, under these nine sub-categories (which all have links to Amazon): The Top Twenty, Management Skills, Effective Communication, Smart Investing, Professional Writing, Personal Finance, Negotiation, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
In the last post I talked about people you should not hire. Here we will do a 180 and talk about the people you should. Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, was all about attitude and creating an organization that fostered a positive, upbeat atmosphere. He felt strongly that people could be trained, and urged managers to “hire good attitudes even when the people with bad attitudes have superior degrees, experience and expertise.” He also felt that people should be allowed to be themselves at work. No employee should ever have to put on a “work mask,” he once told me in a written interview.
Research and experience shows that Kelleher is right. Choosing someone because of an impressive resume over an individual with a winning attitude can be a huge unforced error.
How do you know how to spot someone with the right stuff?
I have always looked for people with character—individuals with the DNA that allows them to put the company above themselves. That’s often the difference between a good hire and a bad hire. People with personal goals often go the extra mile when the company needs them most.
There are other ways to discern the out-performers from the laggards. Trusting your gut is usually a good idea, especially if your gut has served you well in the past. Or, perhaps you have heard from multiple constituencies (e.g. customers, colleagues) that this individual is not a team player. If you need a formula to identify top notch people, consider one of my favorite Jack Welch management models. People with good attitudes are also more likely to have his “4E’s of Leadership.” What are the 4E’s?
Energy—people who go at 75 miles an hour all the time. Energize—are those managers that fire people up. Edge—managers with edge know how to make the tough decisions and avoid the maybes, and Execute—those managers who deliver results. Hire the people with the right attitude, people who score high on the E to the 4th scale, and you are far more likely to reap the benefits of a great manager or employee. Hire on the basis of resume—which reveals little about someone’s “E” quotient, and you may find yourself having to clean up a huge mess somewhere down the line.
Want to know more on what to do and what to avoid in the workplace? The Unforced Error, my new book, is now available at Amazon and at all good bookstores.
In the last posting I discussed how hiring the wrong person is one of the greatest unforced errors a manager could make. Close behind that one is keeping the wrong person even though you know he is all wrong for your unit and/or company.
How do you know when someone doesn’t belong?
He may not live up to the rules of the organization, especially the unwritten ones. Or he or she may simply fight against every key management initiative. Or an employee may simply be over his or her head in their current position. In these unsettled times, with unemployment at about ten percent, there is no reason to keep someone who does not perform with distinction. In most industries, there are others on the bench and unemployment lines just waiting for a chance to show you what they can do. But that’s besides the point.
Jack Welch was roundly criticized because he eliminated the bottom ten percent of the GE workforce every year. Early on he was called Neutron Jack (for eliminating people but keeping the buildings standing) and far worse by those who felt the full impact of this particular leadership tenet. But, as Welch pointed out, the New York Yankees fire the weakest players every year, so why shouldn’t his company? After all, both want to win and ridding the organization of non-performers increases one’s chances of winning. My new book, published today, The Unforced Error, increases chances that you will be retained and promoted rather than fired or left to twist in the wind.
The key is to make sure that when you discover someone who does not fit your company, move quickly. One of the greatest confessions made of big time CEOs is that when it comes to important matters, they never moved quickly enough. There is a lesson there for all of us, particularly those procrastinators who can’t ever reach inside themselves and make the really tough decisions that need to be made.
Tennis players often get to choose their doubles partners. In the world of business, you can’t always choose the people you work with. As a new employee or manager, you are assigned to a particular team or unit. However, one of the big responsibilities that comes as you rise into the ranks of management is the authority to hire new teammates. And it is in this critical area that managers often make the biggest unforced errors of all.
The best managers understand this. Under Jack Welch, less than one percent of GE’s “A” [best] managers jumped ship, demonstrating how well GE hired and developed people under his leadership. The legendary CEO Alfred Sloan, who turned General Motors into the world power it became in the 1920’s, 30s, and 40’s, would spend hours interviewing potential managers for positions that seemed insignificant from his vantage point on the org chart. However, when Peter Drucker asked him why he spent four hours interviewing a manager for his Toledo plant, Sloan answered unflinchingly: if I don’t spend those four hours now, he said, I will have to spend 400 hours cleaning up the mess. And that’s time I do not have.
Hiring bad partners or colleagues is obviously not restricted to sports and business. In my new book, The Unforced Error, I use the example of Sarah Palin. At a time when the Republican candidate was five to seven points behind his Democratic challenger, McCain panicked. Even though his strongest case for voters was his experience—veteran senator, war hero, foreign policy experience—he abandoned all of that when he chose the inexperienced Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. The junior senator from Illinois, in contrast, ran a near-error-free campaign. At first, Palin energized the base. However, when Katie Couric interviewed Palin in prime time, the Alaskan governor choked. Not being able to answer what magazines or newspapers she read was a huge unforced error that proved to the world that she was not ready for prime time. When she said she could see Russia from her living room as evidence of her foreign policy experience her fate was sealed. Soon after her numbers sank and along with it any chance for a Republican victory. While very few of us get to run for any office at that level, the story illustrates how choosing the right people is one of the most important decisions any manager ever makes.
In the last post I described how most people who work for large organizations are eliminated—not fired. However, at the highest levels of U.S. corporations, executives are getting fired by the boatload. I am talking about the CEO, the person at the top, the one who must be held accountable for the organization’s actions and results.
CEOs are getting fired in record numbers in recent years. As in tennis, the higher you go the more costly the unforced error. In one recent year, one out of every five CEOs of the top 200 companies were fired (that according to a Booz Allen study). Research also shows that between 1995 and 2006, CEO firings shot up by sixty percent. These are terrible numbers and point to a disturbing trend. CEOs are making more mistakes than ever—especially more serious, career-altering errors.
All of this CEO turnover is wreaking havoc on the publishing world. In the 1990’s, books by—and about—CEOs were a cottage industry. Led by Jack Welch, CEO books sold like…well, CEO books. There was of course Welch, but also other CEOs like Bill Gates publishers could count on. However, since Jack Welch retired most of a decade ago, there has been no one to take his place (the only one who has come close is Warren Buffett). The celebrity CEO is a dead phenomenon, and book publishers along with company stockholders are left weeping at the graveside.
Will the superstar CEO ever make a comeback? Perhaps. But more than half a century ago, Peter Drucker wrote that “no institution can possible survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it.” Maybe Drucker was right. Maybe we don’t need celebrity CEOs to run our companies. Perhaps all we need are leaders with more humility than hubris; executives more concerned with the fundamentals than the fame. This won’t do anything to reinvigorate the CEO part of the business book category, but it might be just what we need to help lead us out of these recessionary times into a more prosperous era.
In the last post I introduced my upcoming book, The Unforced Error. The book is intended to pin-point those landmines which often blow up people’s careers. In the weeks ahead I will be including examples of unforced errors in business addition to the postings I write about business book publishing. As in the book, the majority of stories will be based on actual scenarios I witnessed firsthand.
One of the things I learned early on is that big corporations hate to fire anyone. That’s because every firing is a potential lawsuit and big companies hate lawsuits more than anything. Organizations often go out of their ways to keep the truth from the employees they ask to leave. In fact, in most organizations, the Director of Human Resources (HR) is not there to help you, the employee, but to protect the company from that next potential lawsuit. That’s why, if you are fired from your company, it is more likely that HR and your manager will present a united front and tell you “we have eliminated your position” rather than tell you the truth (e.g. you are a greater liability than an asset and you are not worth the salary we pay you anymore).
If you are told the truth, and fired for cause, then it is because the company has a thick file of transgressions which clearly shows how you have not measured up to a certain minimum level of performance. Big companies love big files because these contain the “proof” that you deserve to be fired (which of course mitigates the chances for a successful lawsuit against the company).
Conversely, strong, loyal performers almost never get laid off. In Darwinian fashion, companies almost always find a way to keep their best, most effective people. To reduce the chances that you and your job will be eliminated, find ways to make yourself indispensable (although no one is truly indispensable). If possible, get a job in which the revenue you produce can be measured. Or help your boss to achieve his or her goals; if the person up the food chain makes her goals, then the need to eliminate someone decreases proportionally. Also, never be a lone ranger. It is much easier to fire someone who does not get along with colleagues than it is to eliminate an authentic team player.
And don’t make it easy for your company to fire you. If you are one of the company’s most productive people then management will have little incentive to get rid of you. And keep your pulse on your unit or department. You want to make sure that you know how well you are regarded. Otherwise, you may be blindsided. And getting blindsided in a tough economy is a situation you want to avoid at all costs. At least if you know what is coming you can take some proactive measures that might help you find that next job before you actually need it.
In the last posting I discussed how neatly the world of sports and business fits together in the book world. As I discussed, for the past twenty years many world class coaches and some of the best athletes of our day have written inspirational leadership books. I have had the good fortune to work on quite a few of them, including several books by John Wooden (of UCLA fame) and one by the late Bill Walsh (of Hall of Fame, 49er Super-Bowl coach) .
I have become such a fan of the “sports meets business” book that I could not help myself from getting into the act, even in an indirect way. Being neither coach nor world class athlete, I had to be creative in coming up with an idea that would transcend my lack of status in the sports arena. Like many city kids, I grew up in the Bronx playing all sorts of sports, mostly street sports like stick-ball, two-hand-touch football, basketball, baseball, etc. However, the idea for the book came to me many years later, long after I had moved out of the New York City. In fact, the book I would write borrowed its metaphor from a different sport altogether, one that I never played until I had long since left my Bronx origins. In fact, this was a sport I almost never played in the U.S., but instead, one that I played almost exclusively during my vacations in the West Indies—in Barbados, for a few days twice a year.
However, the idea came to me not there—basking along the balmy beaches in Barbados—but in the heart of Manhattan, after witnessing dozens of stupid, career-ending or near-career-ending moves at the large publishing companies I had worked for in the 1980’s and 90’s and beyond. It was watching people—smart managers and individuals for the most part—who made really God-awful decisions that helped me to conjure up the metaphor that would prove to be the nucleus of this book. And these were not mistakes brought on by others, but mistakes made by people acting entirely of their own accord.
I thought these acts were “unforced errors,” just like the ones that take place on tennis courts all of the time. The term “unforced error” was coined in 1982 to signify an error made by a player in position to make the shot but muffs it by hitting the ball out of bounds, into the net, or not at all. That’s it, I thought. These managers committing acts of idiocy were making unforced errors by the boatload.
So, employing that metaphor, I worked on that book for more than a year. The book’s primary focus is to point out those thorny traps so many managers fall prey to, and to better position themselves to nab that next great promotion. It is based on my personal experiences along with the wisdom of business titans like Jack Welch and Peter Drucker.
The book will be published two weeks from today, on October 15th. THE UNFORCED ERROR: WHY SOME MANAGERS GET PROMOTED WHILE OTHERS GET ELIMINATED. You can pre-order now by going to Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.