One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Job-Hunting While Still Employed [Two-Minute Mentor #10]

Job-Hunting While Still Employed Searching for a new job without revealing that you aren’t very pleased at your current job or getting fired can be a challenge. Here are four ways to job-hunt with caution.

  • Examine your motivations before job-hunting. Many people who jump ship in frustration run into the same problems that were an obstacle with previous employers. Try to ask for honest feedback about how you’re perceived by your managers and what’s holding you back from a promotion. You’ll find it easier to tackle career progression frustrations in a familiar environment at your current employer rather than at a new company where you’ll be under pressure to learn the ropes and produce results quickly.
  • Respect your employer’s time and resources. Don’t job-search on company time—your current job responsibilities are your priority. Looking for another position typically involves having to be away from your office for interviews; use your vacation days—not sick days—for job-searching and interviewing. Be careful about using your work computer to look up jobs, contact recruiters, or update your social-media presence.
  • Be tactful about whom you tell that you’re looking for another job. Even if you trust your coworkers, you can’t limit what they may share with others. Some of your coworkers may be ethically obligated to keep your boss and your company informed about any prospective changes in staffing or anything that might affect the organization’s goals. Be cautious about how you promote yourself on LinkedIn and job-search websites.
  • If you are offered a new job, be straight with everyone. Inform your boss immediately. Give as much notice as required, plan to tie up loose ends, and offer to help transition your responsibilities to a successor. Don’t be unreasonable in leveraging your new job offer to negotiate a counteroffer from your employer. Do your best to leave on the right note. Be consistent in what you tell different people about why you’re leaving. Do not burn bridges in the job-transition process.

Seven Real Reasons Employees Disengage and Leave

Root Causes for Employee Disengagement

Engaged employees not only contribute more and enhance bottom-line results but also are more loyal and therefore less likely to leave their organizations voluntarily.

Here are seven widespread root causes for employees’ lack of enthusiasm and commitment to a workplace.

  1. Employees find the job or workplace to be different from what they had expected when hired.
  2. Employees are not well matched or challenged in the jobs to which they have been assigned or promoted.
  3. Employees receive insufficient coaching and feedback from their boss.
  4. Employees recognize few prospects for professional growth and advancement. Alternatively, employees are obliged to log two or three years of unexciting assignments to “pay their dues” before being considered for promotion.
  5. Employee feel undervalued, underpaid, or under-recognized. They don’t get enough informal acknowledgement for their contributions or feel constantly “out of loop.” Their managers don’t seek opinions or supply the right tools to excel at work.
  6. Employees feel stressed or burned-out due to overwork or work-life imbalance.
  7. Employees have lost trust and confidence in their management and leadership.

Idea for Impact: Disengaged employees are more likely to leave their organizations.

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight Moonlighting—working a part-time job or having a business “on the side”—can pose a challenge for employers. Moonlighting can lead to divided allegiance, conflicts of interest, and poor job performance.

Employers expect employees to be present and prompt at their jobs. If employees are hustling to attend to multiple commitments, fatigue, lack of sleep, poor attentiveness, tardiness, and absenteeism can become problems. When an employees’ moonlighting hurts their on-the-job performance, employers are within their rights to discipline and terminate employees. For these reasons, some employers limit or prohibit moonlighting.

The proactive approach to moonlighting

One way to head off moonlighting problems is to have a policy about part-time jobs and running side businesses. Institute a policy that sets performance expectations, protects proprietary information, avoids conflicts of interest, and averts divided allegiance. Your moonlighting policy cannot regulate employees’ off-duty activities or prohibit employees from having other jobs. But it may expect employees to disclose and get approval for supplementary employment. A moonlighting policy may also require senior managers and leaders to disclose directorships and financial interests in other companies.

Tell employees they can’t mix their business with your company’s business

If you find an employee doing side work for pay from your office, tell him that this is a clear violation of office expectations; he should conduct no business other than your company’s during work hours. Tell your employee, “You can’t mix your other business with our business. Your time at this job should be exclusively for this job. Our company resources are for our company’s purposes only.”

If your employee gets occasional calls that he needs to attend to, reiterate the above expectation and encourage him to answer the calls during break time and away from his desk. Encourage him to respond to those calls with “I’m at my other job right now. Let me call you back later.”

Discourage employees from selling stuff to other employees

Problems from employees moonlighting in part-time jobs and running side businesses If you find an employee selling stuff to other employees or soliciting outside business during paid working time, discourage it as soon as you discover it. Explain how this interferes with your office’s work.

Discourage your employees from turning your office into a showroom and making customers of other employees. Selling merchandise could impair work relationships when a buyer is unhappy with a product or service. Worse yet, side-businesses can easily grow unmanageable in case of network marketing programs (e.g. Amway, Herbalife) that encourage upselling or getting others involved as salespeople.

Employees can involve their colleagues in side-businesses outside your office, as long as such activities don’t harm at-work relationships.

Idea for Impact: Managers can forestall many employee problems by being proactive and setting expectations

In general, moonlighting is neither unethical nor illegal. It may become an issue when the employer specifically prohibits it and/or where the other job is with a competitor, supplier, or customer and is therefore a potential conflict of interest. The only time you really need to challenge an employee’s moonlighting is when it can affect your business in terms of conflicts of interest and deficient work performance.

Bear in mind: don’t overlook or disregard such concerns until they become major problems.

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Every manager should make employee retention a priority and regularly inquire, “How many of my star employees would leave my organization if they could?”

Employee turnover can be expensive. Managers must find and hire replacements, invest in training the new employees, and wait for them to get to up to speed—all while suffering productivity shortfalls during the transition. The more talented an employee, the higher the cost of replacing him/her.

Here’s what you need to do to keep your star employees around.

  1. Identify them. Find key attributes that distinguish top performers from average performers. Then rank your team against these attributes and identify those employees who are critical to your organization’s short- and long-term success.
  2. Perform salary and compensation research within your industry and offer an attractive-enough benefits package. Beyond a particular point, compensation loses much of its motivating power. Consider flexible work arrangements.
  3. Understand what your star employees value and help them realize their values and regard their work as meaningful, purposeful, and important. Often, the risk of losing employees because their personal values don’t correspond with the team’s values is far greater than the risk of losing them because of compensation.
  4. Get regular feedback from your star employees. Ask, “What can I do as your manager to make our organization a great place for you to work?” Let them tell you what they need and what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Adjust their assignments and their work conditions accordingly.
  5. Invest in training and development. Give star employees opportunities to develop their skills and increase their engagement and job security. Hold frequent and formal career discussions to determine employees’ goals and aspirations and coach them.
  6. Give your star employees the autonomy, authority, and resources to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way.
  7. Keep them challenged and engaged. Make work more exciting. Set aggressive, but realizable goals. Move your star employees around into positions in the company where they will face new challenges and develop critical skills. Employees would like to be challenged, appreciated, trusted, and see a path for career advancement.
  8. Appreciate and give honest feedback regularly. Make timely and informal feedback a habit. Don’t disregard employee performance until the annual review. Help employees feel confident about your organization’s future. Earn their trust.

How to Promote Employees

How to Promote Employees

Job Promotions Can Be Stressful

A job promotion is generally cause for celebration and gratification. However, it can be a source of deep anxiety for many employees: they tend to suffer additional mental strain and are less likely to find time to go to the doctor. Research at the University of Warwick found that “the mental health of managers typically deteriorates after a job promotion, and in a way that goes beyond merely a short-term change.”

Promote Employees Who’ve Shown Some Evidence of Success

Before you decide to promote an employee, ask yourself the following six questions about the candidate. The more affirmative answers to these questions, the better the chances for the promotion to succeed. Examine and resolve any “no” answers before considering the employee for other job transitions.

  • Is the candidate performing her current duties well enough to justify a promotion?
  • Can she hand over her current responsibilities to a new person?
  • Does she possess a sound understanding of the fundamentals of a business and have the requisite operating experience?
  • Is she keen to take on a new job? Is she familiar with the responsibilities and priorities of the new job? Is she willing to make decisions and be accountable for results?
  • Is she qualified and experienced enough to do at least part of the new job? Is she adequately trained or ready to be trained in the new job’s requirements?
  • Are her interpersonal skills adequate to work with employees, customers, suppliers, peers, and bosses in the new job?

Idea for Impact: If employees are not entirely prepared for new assignments, you are unintentionally setting them up for stressful transitions, bitterness, or eventual failure. Beware of the perils of promoting people too quickly.

Don’t Assume Conversations with Human Resources Will Remain Confidential

Do Not Assume Conversations with Human Resources Will Remain Confidential

Human Resources (HR) can be a great resource to help you secure a promotion, be a better manager, and even deal with an employee grievance/claim.

However, if you’re having a serious problem with a manager or a colleague, don’t pour your heart out to your HR person and ask that no action be taken. You cannot count on the confidentiality of your discussions. While your HR person intends to help you, he also has an obligation as well to helping your manager and your colleague deal with you.

Similarly, do not discuss any career-transition plans (switching to another job within your company, resigning, job hunting, or retiring) with HR. HR is obligated to keep your manager informed about any prospective issue concerning staffing or anything that might affect organizational goals.

Human Resources and Confidentiality

HR has no lawful obligation to maintain confidentiality in anything you discuss. You may expect your HR person to remain confidential to the greatest possible extent. However, remember that the HR person’s primary loyalties and responsibilities concern the organization’s business needs. He is duty-bound to investigate employee complaints and involve other levels of management, especially in case of possible discrimination or harassment concerns.

Expect your HR person to pass on any information that’s in the organization’s best interest, even after promising confidentiality. HR should never mislead employees about the level of confidentiality they can expect. Such HR people aren’t behaving ethically and, over time, tend to lose employees’ and managers’ trust.

Go to HR for guidance on solving people problems or for help with organizational policies and procedures. See a reliable friend or a trusted peer to confide problems and challenges. Do not share anything with HR that you wouldn’t share with your manager.

Idea for Impact: HR is obligated to act on serious issues they learn about, whether or not you want them to. Therefore, never assume that conversations with HR will remain wholly confidential. Be discriminating in what you disclose to HR.

Performance Appraisal Systems “Don’t Meet Expectations”

Perfect Phrases for Performance Reviews » Douglas Max and Robert Bacal Across the corporate world, the annual performance appraisal system has been reduced to a perfunctory exercise to “do what HR needs and check-the-box,” and produce paperwork to weed out the laggards and reduce liability against discrimination lawsuits. So much so that one company I know recently distributed copies of the book “Perfect Phrases for Performance Reviews” to hundreds of its managers to help “use relevant phrases and standardize the vocabulary” and “ease the whole process.”

Empirical evidence suggests that, taken as a whole, the annual performance appraisal system has failed to “meet expectations.” It produces no durable improvements in employee behavior and seldom assists the employees meaningfully with career development. Nor does it have a discernible impact on organizational development. Thanks to a system that is highly subjective and easy to game, this annual ritual has become a stressful exercise for managers and employees alike.

At many companies, performance appraisals center too much on filling out forms. The actual performance appraisal meetings tend to be uncomfortable encounters for both managers and employees. Much time during these meetings is devoted to disputing the self-evaluations of employees, summoning up their failings, and defending the employee rankings previously determined by a “consensus” process administered by HR. Besides, during the ranking process, managers tend to overstate the accomplishments of their own employees and put down other employees — after all, managers do not want to incriminate themselves and admit failure in managing employees as successfully as their managerial peers might assert.

Performance appraisal systems do not meet expectations

Core to this problem is that most managers fail to understand that employee performance management is about establishing relationships and ensuring effective communication about how employees, managers, teams, and organizations can succeed and create enduring value.

Performance management should not be limited to just once a year during the annual performance appraisal. Helping employees to reflect on their performance and learn from their mistakes, and coaching them should be part of the everyday interactions between employees and their managers. This way, the employees can solicit feedback promptly, know where they stand, and make small ongoing improvements. The managers do not have to wait until the appraisal time and then make an extraordinary attempt to convince their employees to correct themselves. The constant communication can eliminate any surprises for both the manager and the employee during the formal performance appraisal exercise.

As part of this informal practice, the managers can keep a diary on employee performance. Recording significant and relevant examples of an employee’s performance (achievements and shortcomings) can help the managers write objective performance summaries. In addition to diminishing the recency bias, the awareness that a manager might write up opinions may persuade an employee to pay attention.

For now, HR can develop a “Performance Improvement Plan” to overhaul the performance appraisal system and truly help improve individual and organizational performance.

More Ideas for Career Success

Four Telltale Signs of an Unhappy Employee

Telltale Signs of an Unhappy Employee A skilled manager understands how to get work done through her staff under all circumstances. She makes herself available, delegates effectively and provides appropriate feedback. She works hard to sustain an effective work environment in which her staff feels motivated and takes pride in their achievements.

The skilled manager accurately discerns what her employees think and how feel about their work; she also assesses their happiness on the job. She recognizes unhappy employees through these four noticeable behavioral changes over time:

  • Tardiness: The unhappy employee tends to arrive late, leave early and takes longer breaks. He is often elusive and hard to pin down.
  • Disdain: The unhappy employee can be grouchy, whining, or may complain excessively. He tends to be oversensitive: he sulks at even the slightest criticism, gets defensive, or accuses supervisors of picking on him.
  • Indifference: The unhappy employee cannot focus on his responsibilities. Consequently, his work tends to be disorganized and incomprehensible. His workload is a struggle. He fails to update management on a regular basis, rarely has a say in important matters, and resists new assignments.
  • Aloofness: The unhappy employee is inclined to distance himself physically, socially and emotionally from his coworkers. He is likely to be uncooperative and refuses to accommodate others’ requests.

‘Stealth’ Layoffs and Employee Morale

Stealth layoffs on Wall Street and employee morale

‘For Wall Street Workers, Ax Falls Quietly’

Last month, the New York Times reported about ‘stealth’ layoffs in the financial services industry. The story refers to a trend of Wall Street firms downsizing their workforces by laying people off without formal announcements. It appears that, at these firms, managements rarely discuss layoffs in meetings or formal communications to preclude negative publicity. As a result, employees cannot easily identify what divisions are targeted for layoffs or whether they’ll stay or go.

Here are excerpts from the “For Wall Street Workers, Ax Falls Quietly” story.

  • Some bosses hardly say a word after people are fired. At Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example, the first clue that someone is gone can be e-mail messages that are returned to senders from a former colleague’s inactivated corporate address.
  • Some Lehman Brothers investment bankers found out their jobs were in peril when they saw cardboard boxes and dumpster bins in the hallways in March.
  • And when Bank of America dismissed some bankers recently, it told them that their annual bonuses had been almost wiped out and that their personal belongings would arrive in the mail.
  • “Nobody knows who is coming in; nobody knows who is going out,” said JoAnne Kennedy, who was laid off by JPMorgan Chase this year. “They want to keep it all as quiet as possible.” In January, when Ms. Kennedy was temporarily out of the office at JPMorgan because of surgery, her boss called to say her job had been eliminated. She did not return to her office and ended up asking the bank to send her the photos of her son that she kept on her desk. [Note: Reorganized]

Impending Layoffs Initiate Distraction and Poor Employee Morale

Portait of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, with the caption 'Big Ben, We're Totally Screwed' After about five years of terrific across-the-industry performance and sky-high compensations, the financial services sector is presently reeling in a downturn—triggered by the sub-prime crisis, credit crunch and stunted returns in capital markets. Under present circumstances, Wall Street firms can justify downsizing their workforce. Still, the trend of ‘stealth’ layoffs amounts to unfair treatment of employees. Ironically, it is likely that these very companies publicly pride themselves on the talent of their workforce and boast “our people are our most important assets” in annual reports.

The practice of ‘stealth’ layoffs establishes an environment of mistrust and apprehension. Employees cannot focus on their work, speculate on ‘who is next,’ and prepare themselves for a potential dismissal. Employees may even hesitate to take vacations for fear of returning to a dismissal. The end result is poor morale and possible defections of talented people to competing firms.

[Image above: A portrait of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, with the caption ‘Big Ben, We’re Totally Screwed’ in reference to the sub-prime crisis. I photographed this portrait across from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in November ’07. The artist had placed this portrait on auction at eBay.]

Layoffs are Never Easy

Dismissals, Layoffs, Downsizing Often, business decisions entail some pain. Layoffs are never easy—for executives of a large organization facing the need to downsize by thousands or for a manager trying to dismiss one of his/her employees. Habitually, managers dread the prospect of facing employees being dismissed. Formal top-to-bottom communication and candid conversations with affected employees are obligations of the management. Employees being dismissed rightfully deserve to hear a respectful and honest assessment of the reasons for layoffs. They merit an offer for support through the transition and in pursuing employment elsewhere. This is the essence of true corporate character.