Train Employees to Avoid These 3 Leadership Mistakes

Leadership expert John Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2011, www.unusuallyexcellent.com), has spent his career studying the practitioners of unusually excellent leadership via his work as a CEO, venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

According to Hamm, there are seven leadership mistakes that put your team in danger of failing elegantly—along with some remedies to get them back into the winner’s mindset. For the first four mistakes, click here. [Marketing: Please link to August 26 issue.]

5. Encouraging “editorialized” data. One of the most pernicious points where failure can take hold is in the feedback process. Leaders, being eternal optimists and enthusiasts, also have a dangerous tendency to signal, often unconsciously, their dislike of bad news, their inner revulsion toward failure. When that happens—especially when that leader hasn’t regularly established an absolute demand for accurate, objective data—subordinates will begin to shape and color the data to meet the leader’s hopeful expectations and emotional needs, rather than the leader’s intellectual needs. The feedback data start becoming corrupted, and that in turn, begins to undermine the overall strategy—until the likelihood of success itself begins to plummet.

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“Unusually excellent leaders demand that performance feedback data be delivered promptly and be uncolored, objective, plentiful, and robust,” says Hamm. “This data is used to figure out what is working and what isn’t, so that corrections to course and speed can be made.”

6. Failing to measure what matters. The right metrics will serve you in enormously useful ways. As the Crosby Quality Institute reminds us: You will get what you inspect, not what you expect.

Hamm writes about one CEO who was constantly entertaining requests from his sales force for changes to the company’s product line—change orders—in response to “customer requests.” In this case, very few of these requested changes, which came at great expense in engineering time and cost, resulted in orders from the people who had passionately argued the case. Instead of getting upset about it, the CEO simply asked that the team begin to track the percentage of change orders resulting in sales orders, and—what do you know?—this costly practice came to a screeching halt as soon as the sales force knew their bosses were looking at these data, by salesperson, every month.

“Measuring what matters is perhaps the very highest use of leadership authority in leading the domain of execution,” explains Hamm. “Once the plan is set, the resources and funding are committed, and the action starts, there is mostly just feedback and response to the unknowns of the battle to be managed. The one thing you must have, to make the real-time course corrections that will inevitably be required, is good data. Invest in the design and the machinery required to gather, analyze, and present the data you need—quickly, accurately, and easily. This, more than anything else, will serve your leadership needs in the arena of live ammo—where the score is kept, the winners get to keep playing, and the losers go home.”

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7. Allowing an ABSOLUTE commitment to winning to slip. A tolerance for excuses, corrupt data that compromise strategy, and a distorted view of what is really happening “out there” are akin to boiling a frog one degree at a time. The frog can’t tell how hot the water has gotten until it is dead. But if you put all these factors together and add the heightened sense of urgency that always characterizes the execution phase, you’ll have plenty of the necessary ingredients in place for systematic failure. The key factor is the resignation and rationalization that occurs when we conclude that winning seems out of reach.

“These are dark moments for any team,” says Hamm. “And yet, we all know that we should leave it all on the field and, as the saying goes, ‘win or die trying.’ But when you’ve already begun to distance yourself from your absolute commitment to winning, you start blaming everything and everyone—your teammates, the strategy, bad luck, crooked competitors, insufficient support, and, most of all, the man or woman in charge. The fact that many people—the honest and secure ones first—see what’s happening and hold the behavior in contempt often proves to be an effective vaccine against the contagion spreading.

“Passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own,” says Hamm. “You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team.”

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