I used to think that if only I got the right job, at the right place, working for the right CEO, that all of a sudden, all of the “crazy organization” stuff — if you’ve worked for a large organization, you darn well know what I mean — would go away. Bzzt! Wrong answer. In the same way that you teach your kids that “life is not fair”, we all need to learn that all big organizations are at least a little crazy.
But we need to succeed anyway. And, it is entirely possible to do so, even if the larger organization is somewhat, well, crazy and dysfunctional.
Create credibility through success, and they’ll leave you alone enough to build an awesome team, even though they think you’re crazy. That’s a summary of 20+ years of leading, observing, and learning. The rest of this post is commentary and clarification.
Step 1. Grow a pair!
I was going to say, “get tough,” but “grow a pair” is a tribute to Larry Winget: I loved his book, “Grow A Pair,” and enjoyed meeting him and interviewing him in person last year.
You’ve got to be mentally tough to create a great team at any organization: remember, they’re all at least a little crazy. I was going to make this a later step in the process, because I think there are a lot of “softer” things that you need to do, but then I reconsidered, because even contemplating going against the grain of the larger organization requires a certain amount of intestinal fortitude.
Get tough. Stay tough. This is not the same thing as being a brute or a bully. Brutes and bullies are not tough, they act that way because they are in fact lazy and incompetent cowards. Think mental toughness like an athlete would have.
To produce great results, you not only have to be willing to question the larger organization, but you also have to hold people accountable for their actions. You especially and importantly have to do this in a non-brutal way. Refusing to be brutal usually means that you’re a decent human being — but that’s why you have to be tough. Decent human beings also can fall victim to cowardice: the coward leader’s way out is to simply be “nice” and look the other way, hoping that, though there’s history that indicates that a failure is imminent, that somehow, something different will happen this time. You’re not being nice. You’re failing your team as a leader. And, you’re failing the organization and someone higher up than you will hold you accountable.
You will probably, at least at some point, have to be tough enough to tell an employee that although you think they’re a nice person (or maybe not), they’re not getting the job done. And you’ll have to be tough enough to tell a supplier before they catastrophically fail that despite an early good start to the relationship (or maybe not), they’re screwing up.
You might have to tell your customer or even your boss that they are part of the problem, because they do things that are counterproductive to getting the job done, like changing the spec of a project on a daily basis. “Honest” is not “stupid.” The way you say it matters. But you’re still going to have to say it if you want to succeed and create that credibility.
In short, you’re going to have to do scary things — thoughtfully, but you’re still going to have to do them.
And that means you’ll have to “grow a pair”, not, as Winget says, between your legs, but between your ears.
Step 2. Love your crazy company.
Your crazy company may be crazy. But it still pays your salary, perhaps pays your health insurance, and maybe even helps you salt away something towards the day where you can no longer work.
I didn’t say “be blindly loyal.” That’s not the same thing. Organizational loyalty has been over for a long time. But if you can’t have some level of mission focus and excitement about the mission, you have no business working at that company. Mission focus is one of the primary ways that you rally the troops to go above and beyond, and it’s critically important that you overdeliver if you want the crazy company to let you run a sane team without interference.
You may have to occasionally remind your team of this. You may have to pull them out of the downward spiral of company-bashing. If you really hate the company, you will do a bad job. I guarantee it. Go get a different job if that is true.
Find the love. Share the love. It may be incredibly difficult at times — see rule #1 — but in the same way that you love your crazy brother or sister, surely you can find the love for your crazy company.
Step 3. Bet on people, not products.
I don’t care how good your IT systems, or your backhoes, or your patrol cars are.
At the end of the day, people operate these. If you don’t have the right people, you will fail. Period.
You will have to relentlessly (not ruthlessly, not brutally) winnow the low-performers out of your team or bring individuals up to the level of performance that you need.
Most of us have heard that we should focus on our top performers at least as much as low performers. That’s true, but my observation is that many problems stem from neglecting the hard, messy job of addressing poor performance.
Don’t focus on more than one problem child at a time. You’ll do a bad job on both.
Products are great, and I love great backhoes and IT systems as much as the next guy. Just don’t get the relationship backwards. People first. Products second.
Step 4. Love process, but don’t be a slave to process.
Process is the way that you get repeatably great outcomes.
Outcomes are the way that you build your credibility as a leader with the people who you work for.
When you have a great team in the middle of a crazy organization, the only way you can do it is to get a reputation as “so-and-so is a little crazy, but sure gets the job done.”
So, love process. Build process flow diagrams with your team, because these are little reminder, to-do list things that help you deliver superior service.
But at the same time, remember that people make process, so people can change process, and that process is for the outcome not the other way around.
Step 5. Quit the Dilbert school of management
Everything you’ve learned about “being a manager” in a formal classroom is probably wrong. We learn to hassle people for stupid crap. We learn to pick all battles, not just the right battles. We puff ourselves up as “the boss” and love our hierarchical power instead of thinking that we are a peer with responsibilities to our team and our customers.
Specifically make a commitment that you’re not going to be that kind of guy or gal. Scary? Sure. We have tremendous social pressure on us to be that guy or gal.
You’re going to need to be tough with people who have that expectation of you. See step #1.
Just as surely, you cannot be a pushover who allows your team members to walk all over you, because that’s almost as bad as being a pompous boss.
The difference between being a pushover and being a Dilbert manager is this: are you taking action because of your responsibility? Or are you doing it for your power?
Step 6. Be the change you want to see.
Change starts with you. You’re in charge of the team. You may not be in charge of the crazy company. Yet. But this bears repeating: in the same way that all sets of financial books have some errors, and all IT networks have some security flaws, all large organizations are dysfunctional in some way. That does not give you an excuse to abdicate your responsibilities.
Be the change you want to see. Don’t like it when staff are pompous with customers? Be humble with customers. Don’t like it when staff refuses to take risks? Take some.
Your team will see you. And they will change, because they want to be like the boss.
Step 7. Get a life!
Your brain is the weapon whereby you will conquer all. And the enemy of your brain is stress. Therefore, as a leader, you absolutely must take care of your stress level. Get enough exercise, make time for breaks, focus on your family life, whatever that looks like. If you don’t, you’ll have distractions and lower brain power just as you need to make critical decisions for your team.
Running is a wonderful physical example of this. It is completely non-intuitive for most folks to grasp the concept that to run long distances, you must slow down and take care of nutrition and rest. Speed comes with time. Nutrition never goes away, and neither does listening to your body and slowing down when needed. This is the only way that you’ll ever run a marathon or ultra-marathon. It’s the same with your brain. The only way that you’ll achieve the long-term performance that you want is if you take care of it, not abuse it.
Beware the dude who hasn’t taken vacation in 5 years: he’s pissed as hell and is going to take it out on someone, likely in a very passive-aggressive way that’s hard to respond to. Workaholism is as bad as alcoholism. The right approach is a blend of work, relaxation, nutrition, and social time.
Step 8. Remember that everything is a temp job.
The days of seriously long-term employment are over, and thank goodness. The lifetime employment gig really restricted personal growth. And it was a lie, anyway.
The good news about no employment being forever is that you should feel very comfortable taking risks, because the odds are that you will be laid off, get a better job offer, or experience some other means of exit from the organization at some point in your time with them.
If you remember that it’s all a temp job, it’s a lot easier to grow a pair; it’s a lot easier to do everything else on this list. You’ll love your crazy dorky company because you won’t feel trapped; you’ll have an easier time being brave; you’ll feel better about doing whatever you need to get a life, quit the Dilbert school, and so on. Because you know you won’t be there forever. Just like life. And that’s a good thing.
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