Leadership is one of my life’s great passions – and I’m pleased to share with you my journey (in three parts in 3 weeks) to what I consider to be the heart of great More Human leadership – the success trifecta.
A successful company,
A happy team,
And a fulfilled YOU.
It’s what happens when a leader gets off their pedestal, and makes critical human connections. It’s what happens when a leader makes it about “the team”, and not about “the company”.
It was fantastic to get to the trifecta and that place of fulfillment. Along the way I learned SO many things about leadership, because I had the honor of actually DOING it.
And for one great stretch of 7 years, I got the chance to preach the principles of that trifecta and convert a lot of people to that way of thinking – and leading.
There are 8 of them (click here to get the full PDF version), and over the next three weeks I’ll talk about them one by one.
But before I lay them out for you, I want to tell you how I got to the trifecta,
Because, like most things in life, it didn’t come without a few bumps in the road.
I was small town guy raised in a blue collar family in the Midwest of the United States. My father showed me the value of hard work, and was raised under the shadow of the Golden Rule – “do onto others as you would have them do unto you”
I went into college wide-eyed, naive to any dark sides of human nature, and eager to get into the professional working world
I started my career as a certified public accountant –because it was the fastest way to a professional paycheck. I did that for 5 years, and then fate intervened. I was hired by a multi-millionaire entrepreneur to be the COO of a 600,000 customer cable company
I was trained by a hard-charging boss to be a “spreadsheet assassin” – sitting in the corporate ivory tower, firing staff, cutting budgets, raising rates – all for the cause of profit.
He was surely what I called a “bossman”, with these traits (see more, and the opposites of “bossman”, here)
Sees in black & white, and never any grey
Likes to tell instead of teach
Likes being on a pedestal, above the fray
Gets lost in the details
Rules by fear
Displays great hubris
Likes to talk, hates to listen
Wants to dictate, not trust
Outlines the “what” and forgets about the “why”
Thinks first about profit
Gets lost in process
Is a disabler
Manages to an end, not a cause
Demotivates with impassiveness
My second day on the job, I fired 11 people over the phone – I didn’t even know who they were.
I was good at my job, since I did love the numbers. So we got the profits we wanted. And hey, I was a boss too! It was “success”, but it felt empty. It didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t feel right.
There was more. There HAD to be more. But I was in a great job, with a great salary, and I had just gotten married. So I parked my inner stirrings & inklings in the back of my brain, and stayed in the ivory tower with my boss, for several more years.
But this time, there was no success to cling to. There was a string of failures in a big project I was involved with, and the “bossman”, with all those “boss” traits, took it out on me.
So I ended up sitting at my desk one day, totally and utterly lost.
Then, a Breakthrough…
How did I end up here, a high-paid valet to the bossman, chained to a desk?
I started thinking about that “MORE” again. I got curious about was going on elsewhere in the business world. Surely, others have found the “MORE”. Luckily, I stumbled across the leadership writings of Tom Peters about that time. And he started to speak to me. With things like:
“The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people.”
He talked about more than just “profit”. He talked about “Excellence” and “the soft stuff”. “Soft” was his code for the people part of the business, and how important that was – and how it was so often neglected, in favor of that “hard stuff”.
Yeah, the spreadsheet assassins know all about that….
The MORE was out there, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to find it chained to a desk. But yet, I still couldn’t quit. I was too afraid of stepping out of that box I’d been put in.
Finally, two more awful years later, I was fired and put out of my misery. Of all the things my “bossman” said that day, one has stood out.
When I still had to ask him “why did you let me go”? (even though I hated it), he said this to me.
“You are better than this. I’m doing you a favor”
I was better than that. I wanted MORE. I wanted to be a REAL leader, one that could really make a difference. And I wanted to do that “soft” stuff that Tom Peters preached about.
Now, I just needed an opportunity. It would take 9 years of more learning and hard work to get there. I joined a different Cable TV company not long after I got fired, and worked my way up to a SVP of Operations role for some cable networks in the Rocky Mountain west of the US, with 300,000 customers scattered around 4 states.
My main duties would be managing all the PEOPLE doing the service work of the company – the installs, the service calls, the maintenance, the customer service, the phone calls.
It was a job, by its nature, that HAD to be about people. It was a job that needed someone who could handle the “soft stuff”. This particular call to duty forced me to sit back and re-evaluate my leadership, and that personal hole I was still trying to fill.
I remembered how good I felt when I did get a chance to interact with teammates, and what it meant to THEM. I thought about THEM. The People. The “soft stuff”.
So the ONE thing I wasn’t going to do was sit in the ivory tower again. I was going to hit the road.
Principle #1: Crossing The Bridge From “I” to “We”
I decided I was going to make a personal connection with every employee, even though I had 1,100 of them in those 4 states. I got out of my office and traveled to where the transactions took place, and our customers were served.
They hadn’t been served very well by the previous owners. They were overworked, underfunded, unappreciated, and very distrustful towards any “corporate” person. Like me.
So instead of talking, I listened. I listened to their dreams and their fears. I discerned what they valued, and how they felt about work.
I realized that like most humans, they want the same thing you want – a really good reason to get out of bed in the morning.
I felt for them. The desire was SO palpable. My heart then intervened.
I wanted them to look into MY eyes, and see what was inside, that heart, and – someone who understood them, and respected them, and the work that they did.
Someone who understood that the work had meaning, and that it made a difference in our success or failure.
Someone who knew they mattered.
It was then, at that point, I took the first step in becoming a More Human leader.
I had crossed the bridge between “I” and “We”. There was now emotional connective tissue at play. I wanted their work lives to be better, and more productive.
And once it was crossed, the “we” became the most important word.
Of course, I had to start with myself. The “least important word” in a leadership context, the “I”, needed to come out of my vocabulary, and be replaced by “we”.
WE had to preach teamwork, and collaboration – and do it ourselves. WE had to put context on all of our decisions, and answer the “why” question for our teammates. WE had to physically show up in the field and establish better connective tissue between the field and the corporate office.
We had to replace the all-inclusive “corporate” moniker with names, faces, and personalities.
Then, finally, we had to simply call out and correct all those who used that evil word – “they”. I did that very thing many times, over and over, until it sunk in.
With the “we” threshold crossed, my eyes had at last been opened to the MORE I had been searching for since my days as a spreadsheet assassin. I could now take off that suit, and put on another one.
Principle #2: Asking For Trust And Keeping Your Promises
I knew the new suit really “fit” the day I sat in my office and decided to personally meet face to face with 87 people we had decided to lay off in a call center consolidation.
The nice letter with the “thank you for your service” wasn’t enough. The fair exit package wasn’t enough. It was human, sure, but in my new world it wasn’t human enough. I wanted to tell them the ‘whys’ to their face, answer their questions, and give them a chance to express their feelings, and, more importantly, reassure those who remained.
On that day, 10 years ago, I decided to be MORE human, and it changed my life and my leadership forever. I had found MY “more”.
But there was also MORE work to do, and discoveries to make.
Namely, it was time to start using another critical word. Trust.
I needed to ask for trust, and once I stuck my neck out there, I absolutely had to keeping my promises
Of course, when I asked for trust, I got a predictable response:
“Why should I trust you?”
We were able to turn these skeptics into believers, by taking these 12 steps to trust building:
1 ) Acknowledging that the turnaround wasn’t going to happen overnight
2 ) Showing empathy about the past trust issues
3 ) Recognizing the value of the work that they performed, and its importance to the cause
4 ) Asking for “open minds” and patience
5 ) Admitting the change isn’t going to be easy – and it might even get worse before it gets better
6 ) Showing up more often
7 ) When we do show up, we don’t make speeches – we engage in conversation (including listening)
8 ) Admit that we will make some mistakes along the way, but own up to them.
9 ) Put the “why” into any important change we make
10 ) Keep the promises (by being prudent with them)
11 ) Walk the walk, THEN ask for trust
12 ) After the dust clears, and the hard work pays off -tie it all together by speaking to the “new believers”, and then reach for greatness
I got to the point where the scale tipped more towards the believers than the skeptics, and that was big. It started what is known as a “flywheel” effect. A flywheel is a wheel that takes a lot of effort to start turning, but once it does, it creates a big momentum on its own, and then the speed becomes effortless.
Principle #3: Establishing a Mantra Of Key Values
Earning trust was the hard push, and now we had some real momentum, which brought me increased confidence in my leadership.
I had a clearer sense of what I wanted to do, and the steps I needed to take. One of those points of clarity became a big focus on establishing a company-wide set of values.
I wanted to be able to point to something that just wasn’t coming from me – an overarching “line in the sand” as to how we should conduct ourselves with our customers, and with each other.
The values also needed to be consistent with my vision of a company of more human leaders & people, and the personal connections I wanted them to make.
And finally, once they were in place, we could have a human yardstick in which to hold ourselves and our teammates accountable.
But the big questions were – what are the values we want to express, and how many should there be?
We came up with 7:
We created a big rollout campaign and announced them with great fanfare, plastering them all over our walls, and on wallet-sized fold-outs. After all, these were our VALUES, and they needed to be seen.
The problem was, they needed to be absorbed, and practiced – for the real benefit of laying them down to be truly felt. And it didn’t happen, much to my chagrin.
I put my finger on the problem one day when I was in the shower, trying to even remember all 7 for a speech I was going to give that day. If I couldn’t even remember them, who else would?
I needed to simplify things. So I narrowed it down to two things:
Serve our customers, and support each other.
THAT became our values mantra. And it stuck (partly because I required everyone to know it). And better still, it got the “absorption” I was looking for.
Principle #4: Finding And Teaching More Human Leaders
We now had a flag to rally around – which meant, for me, it was time to teach.
Because, after all, the very definition of “lead” begins with “show the way“.
It can be time consuming. It can be frustrating. It’s a lot harder than just barking out the orders and hoping they’ll be followed. But teaching must be done.
And through the years I’ve discovered 5 keys to being an effective teacher in the workplace:
1) Repetition – Anyone who’s worked for me knows “Terry’s Rule” – if you want someone to really remember something, you have to say it 15 times. It may seem weird to sound like a broken record all the time, but it really does work.
2) Consistency – Or better said, No hypocrisy! Saying one thing and doing another is a horrible way to teach. Or, for example, saying to your staff that quality and service are THE most important things, and then the next day saying getting it done as fast as possible is the most important.
3) Plain English – The less your staff reach for the dictionary, the better. I used to tell my managers that we weren’t paid by the word.
4) Common Sense – This comes into play in a couple of important ways – by thinking before we speak, and by simply having an awareness of when you really, really need to teach to keep a bad outcome from happening (like my boss in that garage that day).
5) “Hands On” is Better – The benefits of rolling up the sleeves and showing how it’s done goes well beyond just the teaching value – it’s a fabulous team builder too. As they say, “an ounce of demonstration is worth a pound of explanation“.
Once I crossed the bridge to “we”, got trust, established core values, and found and taught more human leaders, we then asked our employees for something that at first glance seemed very counterintuitive to being more human, but in the end, was the most human thing we did, and the most important thing to building a great company and team. But it wasn’t going to be easy…..