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Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.

The cover of our eBook . . . .

Engaging Cover Mini copy.png

Here is a list of few things I’ve learned being in leadership positions for more than 25 years . . . how many do you agree with? How many have you experienced? Are their others that should be added to the list?

  • While there are lots of successful business models, business gets done through the effort of people.

  • Managers typically lose more sleep over people issues than they do business decisions.

  • Problems that persist in human systems are rarely simple, obvious, or subject to a quick fix. The easy fixes never become persistent issues.

  • Leaders fail to deal with “difficult employees” for a number of reasons but the biggest one is fear . . . in the leader themselves.

  • There are many successful business plans but success is determined by the action of people on the team.

  • People’s behaviors are, to a large degree, conditioned by their past experiences and only recognizing this and sustained focused practice create real changes.

  • The leader’s most difficult employee is likely to be one that differs the most from the leader in personality . . . and thus the one with the most potential to add balance to the team.

  • Leaders who are quick to see termination as the answer to problems will create teams with systemic problems of trust, loyalty, honesty, etc.

  • Leaders who will not address a toxic employee will demotivate and erode their team’s efforts.

Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading “difficult” people is an eBook we wrote to help managers and leaders. It can be downloaded for free (we do ask for your email), or, if you prefer, you can support our work and buy it on Gumroad.


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I'm a fanatic . . . about culture . . . but it better be real!

Yep, I could be  that guy!  I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Yep, I could be that guy! I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

I admit it. I’m a fanatic. No not a ranting, in your face, zealot. I’m from the midwest after all. Our zeal is a little more tempered. Stoic. Nice. That reminds me, our state once thought the best tourism tag line for our state was to promote this . . . “Nebraska, nice.” Ugh. Doubt it helped much. Anyway, back to me, the fanatic. I bear all the hallmarks of being a “true believer,” I have the gear, I study carefully everything about my passion, I’m drawn to others who share a similar love for the object of my obsession, I’ve done it all . . . except the tattoo. But then again, I’m from a different generation and, again, midwestern.

So, what is it that I am fanatical about? Well . . ., before I tell you and some of you sign off—concluding that your passion is not mine, and thus irrelevant—let me say, this post is not about the object of my fan-dom (fan-dumb?) but about the power of culture You see, the entity upon which my interest is focus is, right now, not worthy of such devotion. Ouch. It hurts to even admit that, I’m such a homer when it comes to college football.

The truth is the truth however and it is undeniable that my beloved team—the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, or “the Huskers” for short—has been awful. Last year? 4-8. The year before? 4-8. Dismal. Yet, this team has a top 15 recruiting class this year. They have been projected to finish in the top 20 by a number of prognosticians. Enthusiasm is high among the fans. Hope is abundant. What gives? Well a change in leadership but perhaps even more importantly the establishment of a new culture.

You can feel it. In the way the players talk, in the way they play, in their belief in the team and coaches and their willingness to voluntarily commit their discretionary effort to the team’s goals. Just watch their body language. A few years ago, under a different coaching regime . . . we won’t name names, I saw players on the side lines with their heads down, looking away or even pushing past . . . and thus avoiding . . . coaches who were trying to talk to them. It was not surprising when, over time, they began to look like they weren’t united in trying to win and the results began to mirror that disconnect. My observations were confirmed when a friend, and former division I quarterback, made the same observation, “You can tell they don’t want to play for this coach,” he said, “Just look at how they act when they come off the field.” Finally, someone close to the program also stated it. “They lost faith in the coach.”

So what has given this new culture its legs? Not success . . . not yet. Unless it’s the reputation of past success which these leaders have or the progress being made. But, success in the present? No. The team started out 0-6. The first time in the history of the program. Amazingly, the team continued to fight. They appeared to improve over the course of the season. They fought no matter what the circumstances and even looked better when they lost. It was clear that they “had each other’s back” and the team was, in fact, a Team. Having played both for teams that were not united or had a successful culture as well as teams that were very high functioning (including a national coach of the year) here are a few observations (from an outsider’s view) of what has made this work.

  1. The leaders have a deep understanding of—and deep connection with —the broader context of the program and how to utilize the context to promote success. The Coach grew up in Nebraska. Population 1,325. The “Walk On Program” here at Nebraska—the recruiting of local kids—is at least as important as the getting the “blue-chippers”—highly ranked recruits— in the context of Nebraska football. He gets this. He praises the fans and the culture as being “like no other” and highlights its strengths—joking about how “blue-chippers” think they’ll see a football stadium in the “middle of a corn field.” Early cohorts talked about valuing the walk on program but in practice . . . they didn’t get it.

  2. The leaders demonstrate a commitment to one thing—success. I hear statements like, “We are going to be good.” or “ We’ll see if he can contribute.” Even doubts, “Some may not be with the program” It’s clear that the goal is the focus and they believe reaching for that goal will help everyone who buys in. You could call it the “while no one is an ‘expendable crewman’ . . . some are more expendable than others.” But the message is clear. This is about being successful as a team. You can “get on board” or not but it is the single clear focus of the program.

  3. Hard work is the route to success. How do you go from 4-8 two years in a row to the 13th ranked recruiting class? Hard work. Weight training. Husker Power. Strength Coach Zach Duvall. The coaches have not shied away from saying that players were not where they needed to be. In fact after the final game to our Iowa neighbors, the coach said it hurt to see that they were bigger and stronger than we were. How’s that for honest clarity? Yes, the coaches are careful to allow that there are many paths to success (that other coaches may have tried) and that previous coaches may have had a different focus and emphasis, but it’s clear that the team did not meet their criteria for strength, speed, and commitment. It’s also clear that anyone wanting to be a part will dedicate themselves to these attributes.

  4. Finally, over everything else, the emphasis is on people. The clear message—and one that resonates as not just being "coach-speak”—is that this is about the players. Helping them become better men. Developing their potential. Becoming a close-knit group and having fun together. Yes, fun. In fused in everything is this belief that hard work, dedication, team chemistry, and success is fun and worth the effort. The mission is not just winning on the field it’s being successful as a person.

In Coach Frost’s own words . . .

As I was writing this blog, an Omaha World Herald article by Sam McKewon came out where Coach Frost talked about the importance of culture. Here’s part of what Frost was quoted as saying . . . “Culture eats scheme for breakfast . . . I can put the guys in the best scheme, the best offensive plays, the best defensive plays we can come up with. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have . . . people holding each other accountable, and we don’t have our team making smart decisions and grinding and working hard, [i.e.; the right culture] I’m not sure the best scheme in the world matters.”

Frost boils it down to two factors, 1. players making decisions in the best interests of their teammates, and 2. a desire to excel and no fear of failure.

Will this, ultimately, lead to the success the coaches want? If we’re talking wins . . . it’s unknown. In fact, due to the variables at play in such an endeavor it could be argued that their is no way to determine what causal factors lead to success on the field. Fair enough. But if you just look at the players behavior, other on and off the field, you can already see a clear and vital difference. It’s clear that this focus on culture has brought a new energy, a willingness to commit voluntary effort to succeeding, and cleared aways a number of hurdles that were detrimental to success. A strong culture, at the very least, increases the likelihood that success is possible—in athletics and in business.

P.S. I was told by someone who worked with transportation for recent Husker teams would leave the bus “trashed” when they got done with a trip. Not anymore. The Coaches, from the first, made players clean up after themselves and appreciate the service they were being given. Coaches talk about representing the state, university, and each other. The message is clear—even in this minor detail, “We will treat people, including ourselves, with respect.” Sometimes it starts that small to build a great culture.

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Work to live . . . or work and live?

Unsplash Photo: Credit to Laura Lafurgey-Smith

Unsplash Photo: Credit to Laura Lafurgey-Smith

 

A recent Gallup publication identified a number of "changing traits" of today's employees; including:

  • They want their work to have meaning and purpose.
  • They want to use their talents and strengths to do what they do best every day.
  • They want to learn and develop.
  • They want their job to fit their life.
  • And they're willing to look for a company whose mission and culture reflect and reinforce their values. (Gallup: State of the American Workplace preview)

For some of us from earlier cohorts--the Baby Boomer generation in my case--most of these items are familiar, motivations that we would have embraced as young people. In fact, it is only the last two that seem to represent a real change. There does seem to be a shift in focus that could be characterized as a move from an attitude of "work to live" toward a construct of "live and work." The choices--and demands--that younger workers are making, combined with the changing skill-set needed in the workplace today, is definitely revolutionizing many corporate policies and practices.

Yet, I can't help wondering if these younger workers have "jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire." Yes, they are getting a "Pixar--Google" work culture, unlimited vacation, remote work . . . and lots of other perks to help fit work into their lives. Corporations continue efforts of "going green," becoming "For Benefit Corporations," and embracing a corporate activism unheard of in the past. But many of these "youngsters" are, never-the-less, still dependent upon a corporate culture which will effect their experiences with all the bullet items above.

So . . . What happens when their particular market sector turns down? What happens when the demand for their skill-set falls? What if the political winds change? Who really controls the satiation of their needs and wants?

It may be "old fashioned" but it seems that the surest way to have control of these factors is to embrace the idea of being your own boss. It be sure, being your own boss, especially in the early days may mean that the job "controls your life" instead of fitting into your life. Many entrepreneurs report working 90 or more hours a week in the critical early days of a start up. Stress management, anxiety, and security can be big challenges. The job at this early stage may not fit at all into the life that a young person dreams of having. But, in the long run, it may still be the most reliable means of providing a level of freedom and life-fit unattainable when working for someone else.

But, this is not easy for many people. Accepting responsibility for your own "fate" requires a willingness to face one's own demons. No longer can you blame a lack of work-life balance on the capitalist system, corporate self-interest, or a boss's lack of understanding or empathy. For now you are the boss, the corporation, the capitalist.

This quickly brings you to deal with another level of personal "demons."

Do you like to avoid issues? You may be forced to face them. Do you face issues but react with anger or feeling overwhelmed or defeated? You may have to find more adaptive ways to cope. It is a journey that will test you, challenging your real values, your personal integrity, your tolerance for risk, your prioritizing your responsibilities, as well as your need for meaning and creating something of value. It can be quite a ride.

In some ways, being your own boss is like a taking a canoe trip down the "rapids" . . . where at times you feel like everything but you is in control. But being your own boss is a trip in which, at least, you get to choose the river you travel, the companions you invite along, and the benefits of sharing the experience.

If you are a leader, check out our free eBook: Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.

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