Attracting and retaining an effective leadership team

While I have been writing about higher ed, this is a general interest piece that I worked on over a period of time.

So, you have finally been rewarded with the corner office.  Getting there may have involved a series of challenges but that is irrelevant history until ten years from now when interviewed for your memoir.  What do you do now?

Successful leaders of anything larger than a sole proprietorship have in common one characteristic; they attract and retain solid lieutenants, even while knowing that many of them have aspirations for the corner office as well.  Consider the following nine ideas as this process unfolds.

  1.  The best people aren’t always looking.

I am amazed by how many well-respected organizations believe that merely posting a high-level position will bring in the best candidates.  With all due respect to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the belief that a general solicitation is sufficient for the task requires a few presumptions.  First, good people have to be looking around.  Most are so busy and have little time to do much snooping, though they may be restless where they are.  Second, applicants have to invest the time it takes to trumpet their accomplishments.  Some high achievers do not possess the associated ego.   Third, most successful people have friends and foes.  In fact, there is a good chance that a top tier performer left a place because of a strained relationship with the boss.  When everyone with a little controversy is filtered out, no risk takers are left.  The remnant is all too eager to apply.

The most expensive investment for top-tier search firms is acquiring lists of names.  Those of us who have served in leadership positions over the years recognize the heavy stock letterhead that announces a position at a similar organization and asks if “you or a colleague may be interested in discussing this opportunity.”  Some keep these letters for a while or forward them to others who they have been grooming for the next move.

It is clearly who you know that brings in the best of the best.  Conversations with trade group leaders, retired executives, bankers, auditors and attorneys can provide inroads into the realm of the non-looking.  Most of these do not wish to put their name in the hat for a multi-step process.  You need to sell them on why this is a good place to move and create a compensation and responsibility package that will make it appealing for them to upend their current situation.

Posting jobs and paying minimal sums for advertising represents a lazy way to attract talent.  Go out and get them.

2.  Money talks

“I’ll gladly take a pay cut to take on more responsibility and risk,” said no one, ever.  Leaders are keenly aware that they have given up personal and family time, hobbies, volunteer activities and even moneymaking opportunities because of their career.  Give them credit for their years of hard work when apportioning vacation time.  Put a bonus package together with a component that is merely a thank you for remaining with the organization while also offering added, substantial rewards for exemplary performance.  Pay them at the top of their peer group.  Vacation costs you nothing.  Bonuses tend to be more than offset by organizational performance.  Paying well adds little to the organization’s total cost but guarantees that the best will be on the team.

The mechanisms organizations create relative to compensation are almost comical.  A less than stellar executive retires and is replaced by an arguably better person.  The CEO states that the new person can’t make what the old person made because they are … younger.  Small wonder that a stellar executive will find such a stricture motivational – to find a new position elsewhere.

There is also the industry standard approach.  “We’ll pay you at the 60thpercentile …”  So, are the other 40% better?  I am not suggesting that a financially constrained organization invest inordinate sums to hire Warren Buffett.  Rather, an extra 20% will not tend to cause undue financial harm and may just land the kind of person who can unfetter those recurring financial problems.

3.  Rarely is it both their faults

Ask an executive why they left somewhere and the answer often relates to leadership style.  “I couldn’t see eye to eye with the leader or one of his lieutenants.”  Digging deeper, one finds a characteristic of weak leadership is to play one lieutenant against another.  This can be particularly frustrating when one of those being played is materially less equipped for the task than the other.  The more experienced person may wind up bogged down by the engine blocks being thrown in his path and finds himself constantly in the mode of explaining and defending.  It’s an exhausting process that I have seen played out all too often.

A good leader assesses the capabilities of the team and weighs in on squabbles.  My question to the leader is whether he would miss one or both of the people who seem to be constantly in conflict.  Depending on the answer, my next recommendation is to release one or both of them.  In the interim, I recommend establishing in the mind of the less experienced lieutenant the perspective that the attacks must end.  Because those with lower levels of experience lack the options for employment enjoyed by others, a heads up is appropriate.  Otherwise, the challenges remain intact while a revolving door cycles through good people who get fed up.

4.  “All business, all the time” leads to unenjoyable business

I am amazed at how little is invested by leaders in building relationships.  The team assembles, discusses business ad nauseum and adjourns.  Occasionally they eat a meal together or attend some sort of entertainment venue.  Team building involves silly exercises from a book of ice breakers.

During a lull in the action, I have calculated how much per hour a retreat is costing.  Considering salary and benefits, the total annual comp was over $900,000, or around $450 per hour for our collective gathering time.  A twenty hour retreat thus cost $9,000 in compensation.

What is interesting is that the cost of retreat accommodations was a fraction of that.  There was little in the way of team building scheduled and the hotel was nice, but no resort.

My suggestion?  These are the people who will make or break a leadership tenure.  Go to a great place.  Schedule in significant time for interpersonal interaction.  Limit the agenda to a few big ideas.  Brainstorm, laugh and encourage each other.  Make every person who is worth keeping on the team want to remain on the team.  If people are found to be less than capable interpersonally in such situations, consider whether they are the right fit.

5.  Encouragement is critical.  Adopting ideas is better.

It is pretty well understood that people need to receive encouragement.  I have worked with those who gush with exemplary statements, telling me how wonderful I was and how lost the organization would be without me.  While all of that is nice, when it is followed by adoption of an initiative of great importance to me, the words are given life.  I am grateful to have experienced this in my career from some exceptional leaders.  I’ve also been praised on the one hand and then had every idea I proposed shot down.  Those are hard days.

My advice to leaders is to praise your team members – specifically and often. Invest the time needed to understand the work that they are doing and make it a point to give kudos for specific accomplishments.  This connects the reward with the activity.  When praise is targeted toward actual accomplishments, the opportunity for correction is not as difficult.

Even more important is to encourage creative thinking on the part of the team and praise ideas with the gift of deployment.  Nothing is more motivating than an idea that has been endorsed and adopted by the team and the leader.  Not every idea has to be bestowed with action.  In the same way, however, never taking action can lead to discouragement and the tap of creativity being shut off.

Will the idea work?  Not always.  Part of the environment that must be engendered is an openness to misfires.  We lick our wounds, learn a few things and move on to the next proposal.  When a failed project results in a public dress down, it pretty much guarantees a future of cautious and conservative activity.  No one wins then.

So, encourage honestly and specifically.  Add weight to that encouragement and praise by adopting the good ideas of those who report to you and serve on your team. And when things don’t go as planned, figure out what was learned and move on.

6.  Effective evaluation of team members

Let me say at the outset that I hate the traditional employee evaluation, aka “performance appraisal” or “PA”.  So often, it is a contrived process that is similar to my kindergarten report card from 1962.  I always was marked off for the handkerchief requirement (remember those?)  I wondered why “always wears his fedora while outside” was not included also.  After all, every man, including James Bond wore one.

Organizations are all over the map with their PA effectiveness.  Too many view it as a required exercise and the results speak for themselves.  A woman thinks all is well throughout the year winds up shocked by the contents of a less than flattering PA, all because something unfortunate happened between her and the reviewer that week. Worse yet is the employee who is universally considered to be inept but scores amazingly well on their PA so that the supervisor can get on with the tyranny of the urgent.

When evaluating the executive team, I like to believe that the goals set at the start of the previous period will form the basis for the review.  In other words, we agreed that you should accomplish these five things.  Either you did or didn’t and, in the process, learned a few things.  Let’s talk about that and then determine what we should accomplish for the next period.  That is a good session.

The new lieutenant needs a few weeks to settle in before meeting with the leader to talk about their goal set.  Upon understand the expectations of the leader, avoid merely having the new person sign off.  Ask for a narrative response that expands how the lieutenant plans to tackle to areas of need, the constraints that are expected and the kinds of results that he or she believe are possible.  It’s even OK to have probabilities assigned of success.  That allows for stretch goals that, if attained, are all the more satisfying.

After the agreed-upon time has elapsed (six months, a year) and prior to the review session, have the lieutenant review the goal set and the narrative, creating a reflection report on progress.  The evaluator (leader) will then consider the original document set and the lieutenant’s reflection before preparing a review.  The goals for the next period are always a separate document set that is processed in the same manner as the first set.  This should take no more than a week of back and forth to accomplish.

A reiteration about encouragement is appropriate here.  Praise the lieutenant specifically about particular accomplishments.  Correction should be approached after sufficient praise and made a part of the ongoing goal set.  This is a time for relationship-building, ending with the statement that the lieutenant is a needed part of the organization.  Ask for feedback, about you as leader and about the organizations focus on success.  What can we do better?  What are we doing that you appreciate.  What can I do to make you more successful?

7.  A work about the troublemaker

Every organization has them.  When I was in the stockbrokerage industry in the 1980s, we would say that what made our brokers so good, made them so bad.  A high producer had to be reined in every so often when his zeal for getting a commission outweighed what was best for the client.  Some were mentioned in the paper for activities that were less than noteworthy.  Sometimes I wanted to fire all of them.  Of course, we would have had no business as a result.

A challenging person who delivers the goods is an important part of any successful organization.  The key is to kindly channel their challenging ways into helpful initiatives for the benefit of the entire place.  It is OK to work with them to address certain interpersonal quirks.  It is also important to be their defender when others attack them on style points.  Success is not defined by everyone liking everyone else. When it is, those who have been challenged by a passionate lieutenant will find the gadfly’s supervisor’s office all too welcoming to criticism by subordinates of the lieutenant.  Unless it is a serious defalcation of behavior, support the gadfly lieutenant.   This is even more necessary when criticism is being leveled by their peers.  Taking sides over style issues is never a worthwhile investment of a leader’s time.  Teams of a singular personality are boring and limiting.

In the end, we have a job to accomplish and may need people who differ fro mour own sense of sensibilities to accomplish that task.  Channel their zeal appropriately and everyone will benefit.

Enjoy the view from the corner!