Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Combat Cronyism. Inspire Loyalty.

“Loyalty’s Very Important to Me”
Back when I was working at Siebel Systems, I knew a VP who would frequently say “Loyalty is very important to me.” He over-emphasized this point, sounding more like a mobster out of a 1960s movie than a manager. Although his words implied that he rewarded people who were loyal to him, his tone made it crystal clear that his intention was to punish disloyalty. As I got to know him better, it became clearer to me that he didn’t understand the difference between loyalty and cronyism, and what he really meant was that cronyism was very important to him.

Loyalty Defined
Loyalty is built over time with mutual respect, based on trust in the other person’s intentions and competence. The foundation of loyalty in the workplace is:
  1. A willingness to put another person’s needs or goals ahead of yours, though generally not ahead of the needs of the team or company.
  2. Ongoing support whether you stand to benefit from the person you’re loyal to or not.
  3. Mutual respect and admiration rather than self-interest. 
    Cronyism Defined
    When I think of the “crony” types I’ve worked with, a few traits and behaviors stand out.
    1. A willingness to put their individual needs and goals above those of the team, the organization, and the company. Cronyism is rooted in self-interest rather than mutual respect.
    2. Cronyism is symbiotic, and includes colluding with someone else to manipulate situations or people to support the goals in item #1. Sometimes both cronies are helped at the same time, but more typically, cronies “take turns” i.e. one manipulates today’s situation to help the other, knowing that the other will manipulate the next situation to “pay them back.” It also frequently takes the form of “covering their tracks” i.e. if Crony A underperforms or mismanages a situation, Crony B helps them to shift blame or otherwise excuse it. 
    3. An expectation of unfair advantage over peers, granted by a person in power to whom the individual is a crony.
    4. Cronyism is different than being a sycophant or “sucking up” in that cronyism involves taking direct action that may be detrimental to the organization, not just saying “Great idea, boss!”
      The Impact of Cronyism vs. Loyalty
      In my experience, cronyism has negative effects on almost every part of the organization except the cronies themselves. It’s bad for the team, because individuals perceive unfairness and lose respect for the leader who favors his or her cronies. It’s bad for the organization because it can create general suspicion and distrust of people’s motives, and we’ve all seen how hard it is to make progress on complex projects when people don’t have a foundation of trust with each other.

      When left unchecked, cronyism can become a cancer in the company culture that spreads and turns into factionalism e.g. large groups protecting their interests over the company’s. I worked at a very large software company that literally lost hundreds of person-years of productivity because Engineering became factionalized due to pervasive cronyism. Products were delayed by months. In some cases, products had to be rewritten because the organizational factionalism manifested itself in incompatible APIs, data schemas, security models, etc. And this was in a large company where integration was a key value proposition for customers!

      Loyalty, however, is developed throughout the organization by good leaders at any level and has mostly positive effects. It gives people another good reason to follow and work harder for their leader. People then become more loyal to the company because they see the leader as an agent of the company. And it creates an additional bond to a leader that can provide a stabilizing effect in the constantly changing high-tech workplace i.e. re-orgs, mergers and acquisition, layoffs, management changes, etc. 

      It’s worth mentioning that loyalty can have negative consequences when taken to the extreme. Anyone who has watched a “group exodus” where loyalists immediately follow a new leader to a new role has seen this. Just because someone’s a good leader doesn’t mean they’re always going to pick winning companies, and beyond that, while the particular role may be a great next-step for the leader in question, the same may not be true for every follower.  Many years ago, I watched a leader I worked with go to a small marketing automation company, and 3 other people from the Alliances team followed him within a few weeks. The company couldn’t get traction, the leader left in less than 12 months, and the followers had to recover from a bad career mistake due to excessive loyalty. 

      Dos and Don’ts in Coping with Cronyism
      Cronyism is hard to address if the problem is at your level or above you in the organization. There’s really no “silver bullet” answer when dealing with cronyism, because individuals, cultures, and companies are unique. Here are some recommended dos and don’ts.

      1. Escalate to a trusted leader - If there’s a trustworthy leader further up the hierarchy and a company culture that generally rejects cronyism, it’s possible to give the senior leader visibility into the situation and let them drive change, but be aware that the change is unlikely to happen overnight, and you are taking a personal risk by being the messenger with this news.
      2. Get external feedback – Because the options can be complex, it makes sense to share your ideas and get feedback from someone that you trust. While some people will choose a confidant who is inside their organization, this brings the downside of potential bias (because they may be impacted by the cronies as well), and creates some risk for you if word leaks out.
      3. Vote with your feet, if necessary - It’s very common for talented, high-performing employees to simply remove themselves from an environment of cronyism, either by making an internal move to another organization, or finding an opportunity at another company. This obviously depends on what else you’d be giving up in your current opportunity, and what your other options look like, but if the cronyism is entrenched and significantly affecting you, it may be time to move on.
      4. Recognize that time is your ally - The worst enemy of cronies is time. If you’re in a situation where the cronyism isn’t repeatedly and directly damaging you, you can “wait it out.” It may take months or even years, but cronyism eventually catches up to the vast majority of its practitioners. As John Lennon once said, “Time Wounds All Heels.”
      1. Escalate to Human Resources – I’ve seen many colleagues fail when escalating situations like this to HR. Seasoned cronies are usually able to “do their thing” without violating the letter of HR law, so you will be viewed as a complainer, and you will have partnered with an organization (HR) that, in the absence of a clear violation, can’t really fix the problem. The cronies won’t adjust their behavior, they’ll just team up to undermine your credibility and minimize your role.
      2. Act out of anger – Taking any action to deal with cronyism can have significant positive or negative consequences, so approach it thoughtfully. Don’t act out of anger or impulse, as we discussed in last week’s post on fear of conflict.
      Have you personally observed or experienced cronyism? How have you dealt with it, and what was the ultimate outcome?

      Tuesday, May 17, 2011

      The Fear of Conflict: Terminal Paralysis of Great Managers

      Calling All Managers!
      Interviewing at Oracle in 1994 (when it was a tiny 20,000 person company!) for my first managerial role, I remember having to climb my way up through interviews with 4 levels of management. When I finally got to the last interview with the SVP, he only asked me one question, “What’s your most important job as a manager?” Without skipping a beat, I responded with confidence “To fight for my people.” He replied immediately by saying “You are right.” I knew I got the job!

      Managers get promoted into positions of leadership for various reasons depending on the business need, and it’s likely because they are hardworking, high achieving, and competent. However, being a successful manager requires much more than being the technical or functional expert. Your ability to deal with different personalities (e.g. motivating your direct reports) becomes more important than being able to do their job better than they can. Moreover, dealing with other managers and upper-level management will define how good a leader you are.

      Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the “Best Manager” of them all...?
      So on Day 1 at Oracle, I did as I said I would and started “fighting for my people” and quickly worked to understand what my team needed to be successful in terms of tools, training, and other resources. I was their #1 advocate. The problem this created for me as a new manager was the perception (which is reality in the corporate world) that I was overly aggressive and power-driven. With this “wake up call,” I needed to adjust how I dealt with people at all levels to correct this major misperception i.e. I am not a “power monger.”

      Successful managers are leaders, and leaders must have a keen awareness of how their own characteristic traits influence how they deal with different people in different situations. Having that understanding about how you’re wired makes you dig much deeper than “are you a ‘type A’ or ‘type B’ personality?” Family upbringing and cultural heritage are major contributors to how you view, react and respond to adversity and conflict situations. Did your parents handle disputes by yelling or by implementing the “silent treatment?” Some cultures avoid conflict and promote “respecting superiors” no matter what. Some people avoid conflict for the simple fact that they are afraid of losing their job. For leaders, conflict avoidance is not an option.

      Know Your “Conflict Mode”
      Personality tests are readily available. But there is one tool known as the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) that I’ve found most useful when discussing conflict resolution. It simply measures your tendencies along 2 axes; Assertiveness (y-axis) – the degree to which you try to satisfy your own concerns, and Cooperativeness (x-axis) – the degree to which you try to satisfy the other person’s concerns.

      Which of the 5 TKI Conflict Modes do you find yourself in most often?
      1. Avoiding – Low Assertiveness, Low Cooperativeness
        Everyone loses here and this is clearly the worse place to be.
      2. Accommodating – Low Assertiveness, High Cooperativeness
        You lose while others get what they want.
      3. Compromising – Medium Assertiveness, Medium Cooperativeness
        This is a tricky one. On face value it seems like a good outcome but the reality is that everyone has to give up something.
      4. Competing – High Assertiveness, Low Cooperativeness
        The bulldog (you) wins, but others lose. You may feel good about it in the short run, but what impact will that have on your leadership reputation?
      5. Collaborating – High Assertiveness, High Cooperativeness
        Yes! This is the perfect win –win scenario. While it’s the preferred solution, it takes a lot of time an effort which may not be an option in some scenarios.
      Knowing which mode is best to use in each particular situation requires thoughtful consideration of short term and long term impacts.

      Can You Feel the Heat?
      As you move up the management chain, the level of conflict (and therefore politics) increases exponentially. As I rose up the ranks to Director, I could immediately feel the increased intensity of politics and therefore conflict. And when I left Oracle for my first VP role, I was met with the harsh fact that I was a “minnow in the shark tank” from a political perspective. Not only were my peers more skilled at “the game,” but also the management culture encouraged frequent, direct conflict. Not being prepared for this, I started checking in with my CEO for every important decision I had to make. I thought I could avoid conflict by making certain that the boss was fully on-board and supportive. Before I knew it, I lost my confidence and stopped being a leader. I was paralyzed by the conflict.
      How you react to conflict directly affects how you will be viewed as a leader.

      Fatal Mistakes in Handling Conflict:
      1. Ostrich Syndrome – burying your head in the sand and pretending, even hoping that the conflict isn’t there or will resolve itself will take away your leadership credibility with everyone i.e. your direct reports, peers, and manager.
      2. "Human Tornado" – beware if you are more apt to be emotional. Visibly demonstrating that you are upset in a conflict situation (e.g. losing your temper, having an outburst and leaving a path of destruction) will do nothing good for you. It will only damage your reputation. Moreover, making rash decisions in the heat of the moment is a recipe for disaster. You cannot think clearly when you are being attacked and in a defensive posture.
      3. Looking for the Water Cooler –discussing your conflict with others (i.e. at the water cooler)as an outlet for stress will perpetuate office politics, causing people to take sides and worse yet, gossip. Influencing through gossip is not leadership.
      Successful managers are able to rise above conflict situations and come through as stronger leaders. Some actually enjoy it. However if you’re not one of them, embracing conflict doesn’t mean you have to like it, merely that you are prepared for it and conduct yourself in manner that is consistent with your own values and how you want people to view you.

      3 Key Lessons from Sustainable Leaders:
      1. Count to 10… How about 86,400 instead? - Waiting 24 hours to respond to a high conflict situation can’t hurt, it can only help. Don’t hit “send” on that flaming email response or you will regret it later. If you’re in a meeting, bite your tongue and take the action to respond later. Buying time to calm your emotions and to think through the situation logically and analytically will lead to better actions by you and favorable outcomes for everyone.
      2. “Punch a Wall” – No, not literally. I remember as teenagers we would punch walls when we were upset. Why? Well, if your hand hurts then you’ll forget why you were upset. Find a way to remove and distract yourself from the immediate conflict e.g. take a walk, go work out, meditate, or whatever you do to relax. The faster you can diffuse your emotional tension, the sooner you’ll be able to deal with the conflict in a reasonable manner.
      3. Call Your “Dr. Phil” – Yes, it’s very lonely at the top and you need to find someone who will allow you to vent and be your “voice of reason.” Calling a friend or talking to your spouse is a good first step but they are not likely to fully understand your crisis. While they can give you moral support and be a good listener, they aren’t likely able to provide you with sound business advice. Find someone you would consider a mentor or coach. Most CEOs have executive coaches to help them work through high stress situations. Having someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses, has context and continuity to your unique business dynamics, and can work with you to create viable resolution approaches (e.g. utilizing the 5 TKI Conflict Modes with you) is invaluable.
      Sustainable leaders lead by example wherever they are. They weather the storms and stand through the test of time. What are your conflict survival stories and tactics?

      Wednesday, May 11, 2011

      Why Your "Door Shouldn't Always be Open"

      “My Door’s Always Open”
      A former direct report of mine (let’s call him “Keith”) called me one day to describe a challenge he was having with his manager. Keith is an experienced director-level professional, and his boss (let’s call him “Nigel”) is the VP.

      Keith was having a significant challenge with one of the employees on his team (let’s call her “Megan”). Megan was constantly pushing back on changes that Keith was trying to drive. Worse yet, Megan was meeting frequently with Nigel, to “discuss her career opportunities.” Nigel and Keith both valued Megan’s intelligence and experience, but for Keith, Megan had become unmanageable. Why?

      Keith did some digging to identify the cause of this ongoing dysfunction. Prior to Keith joining the company, Nigel had said to Megan “You’re a key player and I’m going to be looking to you for feedback on Keith’s performance, how you’re doing, and your continued thoughts on the direction of the department. Remember, my door’s always open.” Ironically, that invitation led to frequent closed-door meetings between Nigel and Megan. Keith was the outsider. Uh-oh!

      Why Your Door Shouldn’t “Always be Open”
      Without intending to, and without even realizing the inevitable consequences, Nigel had: 
      • Undermined Keith’s on-boarding process i.e. establishing Keith as the new department leader.
      • Ensured that Megan would focus her energy and loyalty on building her relationship with Nigel rather than Keith.
      • Created a “stalemate” (who’s the boss?) situation that would undermine progress and productivity in the department.
      • Sent a message to all front-line workers that they could bypass their manager and take issues directly to their manager’s manager.

      Making the transition from an individual contributor into management is a major role change that many good leaders handle successfully. Sometimes the smoothness of that transition causes those same leaders to underestimate the challenge of transitioning to the next level i.e. managing other managers. It’s a common mistake for new second-level leaders to try to maintain the same relationships with individual contributors, which is devastating to the front-line manager and detrimental to the entire organization.

      If this seems obvious - why is this mistake so common?  New second-level managers can be self-conscious or even insecure about making the step up to managing managers. And it’s not unusual for them to make visible, even awkward gestures and statements to reassure front-line staff that they’ll stay “a man (or woman) of the people.” This is often based on the assumption that this will engender greater loyalty from the front-line and will help the leader stay in touch with the needs of the staff.

      The problem is that this well-intentioned invitation can easily be misunderstood, or even exploited by front-line troops. It can undermine your management team and inadvertently emphasize that loyalty to you, and not your front-line  managers, is the ticket to success in your “new regime.”

      More Backlash from Your “Open Door”
      Let’s consider an example where the premise is opportunity for a talented employee, rather than back-channel feedback about a manager. Suppose now that you are having a conversation with a front-line  employee. And because you’re impressed with his productivity and ambition, you suggest that he take the lead in the department’s next major project (e.g. product launch, new training program, process overhaul, etc.). Now that you’ve offered it, he knows that he doesn’t need his manager as a sponsor, and the rest of the group knows that you’re the person that will give them an “inside track” on new opportunities. His next step will be to tell his manager that you selected him for the high-visibility project. Now this blind-sided manager will need to deal with reprioritizing and reassigning other projects. What a mess!

      When you take any direct action as the result of a one-on-one meeting, you’re “colluding” with the employee and undermining the manager, whether you mean to or not.

      A Sustainable Leadership Approach
      Now imagine a situation where you had the idea to let this employee manage the next big departmental project, but instead of offering it directly, you discuss it first with his manager. The front-line manager will have input to the process e.g. let you know how the employee has been performing, as well as what other tasks and projects are on his plate. You and the manager could then agree on what gets de-prioritized or reassigned so that a complete game-plan is ready for communication i.e. reinforcing that the manager is in-charge. And then, and this is the most important piece, the manager can meet with the employee to explain that there’s a new project opportunity, that you both had discussed it and how she felt that the employee would be a good fit and get valuable experience from it.
      Handling the situation in this way:
      1. Builds the employee’s loyalty to his manager.
      2. Demonstrates to the rest of the team that the manager is a strong advocate for his team.
      3. Lets the front-line know that the way to get new opportunities is to work through their manager.
      4. Builds loyalty to you at all levels of your organization.

      That’s a win for everyone and for the business, which is great for you.  Moreover, you haven’t “lost” any loyalty from front-line employees by handling it the right way i.e. respecting and empowering your managers.

      Once you’ve undermined your managers and set the expectation of collusion with front-line employees, it can be nearly impossible to recover. In most cases, when a situation like the one with Keith, Nigel, and Megan develops, it’s unresolvable without one of the involved parties leaving the group or even leaving the company.

      Have you ever been undermined by a well-intentioned Director or VP in this way? Were you able to recover, and if so, how? And how did you inform your manager of the damage he or she was doing by managing around you?