Monday, May 3, 2010

First Time - Part 23: Recognizing Poor Leaders

You have just been promoted. Congratulations. You now have a half dozen folks who work for you and each has 8 or 10 or more folks who work for them. The folks who work for you used to be your peers. No longer; you are now leading leaders.

So, how do you recognize the bad leader among them?

This is perhaps the most difficult thing you will do. It is difficult, subtle and time consuming. Begin by reconciling yourself to the fact that it means passing judgment on people who are your friends. Remember: you are not judging their morals, their intellect or even their ability to do most jobs; you are only judging their ability to lead. That may not help a great deal, but it is necessary that you remind yourself – and them when the time comes – that your job is to recognize and rate their leadership skill.

Recognizing leadership skills, and identifying effective and poor leaders is not intuitively obvious. It does not reduce to easy tests. Most organizations, even those noted for producing great leaders, routinely make mistakes in this regard. Poor leaders get promoted again and again. They wind up at the top of great organizations. Finding poor leaders is difficult. But it can be done.

How do you recognize a poor leader who works for you?

The problem is that poor leaders often perform well, advancing the organization and equally often advance some people – usually their favorites. Good leaders do the same things: they advance the organization toward the overarching goal, and they advance their people. The distinction is this: good leaders make everyone better, and better off, and they ID the people who will make up the next generation of leaders for the organization, setting up the organization for future success.

Poor leaders on the other hand leave ‘wreckage’ in their wake: often an organization that has been bled dry, people who have been used, poor morale, and a host of other problems, many of which only come to light once they have been promoted and moved on to other jobs.

But, trying to ‘measure’ if someone who works for you is doing a good job leading is not as simple as it might seem; there are few leaders who are talented in recognizing both exceptional leaders and poor leaders. Looking down is hard. (And looking up is almost as hard, but that is not the subject of today’s discussion. Suffice it so say that followers are often poor judges of the leadership capability of an individual. A good case study, well removed in time, is General George McClellan; his men worshipped him, and he had many valuable qualities, but he was a terrible commander in combat, a fact Lincoln recognized early. History is full of generals and presidents and prime ministers and kings who were loved but, were – overall – ineffective, even terrible leaders. Further, there are people who were (and are) great leaders, but the initial reception from the followers was negative. Only over time were they accepted by the followers).

So, the first hurdle to clear is that the leader is advancing the organization and moving forward towards the organization’s goal. Again, this isn’t intuitively obvious to the outside. If ‘Joe’ was placed in charge of a department that was a complete mess, it may take quite a while to fix, and it may ‘get worse’ for quite some time as ‘Joe’ goes about fixing it. So, the first thing in such a situation is to make sure there is an accurate assessment of the state of the department. Make certain you know what ‘Joe’ is going to do to fix the organization and you have some way to measure progress. If the organization was a complete mess when Joe arrived, is he making the expected progress in fixing the mess? Is there a clear plan, even when that clear plan calls for drastic and painful steps? Is ‘Joe’ taking those drastic steps and making them work?

If ‘Joe’ was put in charge of a failing division and told to fix it, and one year later it is still losing money but not as badly, the real question is what was the forecast? If you fully expected that 2 years would be required to turn the division around, then you need to measure ‘Joe’ against those expectations, and against any other economic downturn. If ‘Joe’ is keeping up with expectations and the plan, then his performance in that regard is fine, even if it is from an accounting perspective the worst in the organization. If you are given command of the worst ship in the fleet and you start to turn it around, it may still be the worst unit in the fleet a year later, but now it is on its way to being fixed, and your performance may be a mark of the best leadership available.

Conversely, even a poor leader, placed on top of a first-rate department, with a staff full of your best people, will likely shine for quite some time. So, you should also have an accurate assessment of the conditions of that department when the new leader took charge and if the performance doesn’t measure up – even though the department may remain far ahead of all the others – then you must consider that ‘poor’ performance when rating the leadership.

Understanding the condition and expected performance of each division within your organization is, therefore, essential for rating the leadership skills of each of your department heads. If someone is put in charge of the department with the most experienced team, with the latest tools and the most resources, they are probably going to do better then someone with an inexperienced team that has old tools and fewer resources. The only way to compensate for these differences is to develop an assessment of each department’s capabilities and a forecast of performance over the next 6, 12 and 18 months (or longer).

While this is happening, you also need to know whether the people are being taken care of, is ‘Joe’ advancing the people? Note, the people may not necessarily be happy; in fact, they may be very upset as ‘Joe’ introduces a series of changes to fix the organization, which may well include letting some people go and moving others. How well has this been communicated to them? Is ‘Joe’ keeping everyone informed? Do they understand the issues? Are they ‘getting onboard?’

Good leaders build teams and build long-term solutions that lead to achieving long-term goals. Is the team getting stronger? Are the people on the team improving? Are they moving toward Excellence? Is the team more tightly integrated behind the department’s and the parent organization’s goals? Are the good people being promoted and inspired and motivated, is retention on par with the rest of the organization, is morale improving along with productivity?

Accordingly, an accurate record of the people in each department is also a must, who they are, levels of experience, education and training, productivity, etc.

But, how do you learn all the above?

Some of this you can glean from the numbers, some of this you will only learn by walking the production floor or the motor pool, by walking around and talking to the ‘troops’ when they are having coffee or a pizza. The essentials however, rest on two key footings: the anticipated performance of the department versus its actual performance; and the morale, productivity, cohesion and growth of the people. Learning this requires that you not only use your own intellectual and analytic skills, but that you spend considerable time out of your office among the people who work for you, understanding the issues and the atmosphere within your entire organization.

So, now that you have identified a poor leader, what do you do?

First, remember what was said earlier: just because someone is not a good leader doesn’t mean they aren’t a good person; this should not be an ad hominem attack. But, if someone is a poor leader you owe it to everyone in the specific department, as well as to the entire organization, that they be moved from that post as soon as practical. The first mistake was in the assessment and selection process that put ‘Joe’ in that position in the first place, and the best thing for all concerned is to move ‘Joe’ out.

At the same time, select a replacement. Except in the rare case of extreme problems – criminal negligence or true incompetence – an immediate firing without a replacement can cause a great deal of turmoil in any organization and should be avoided if possible. Move as quickly as possible, but take enough time to make a reasonable selection, and name a replacement and change the leadership.

Second, communicate! Tell the folks in the department and tell the folks in your organization what you did and why. No matter what you do the word will get out, but it will usually get out without all the facts. Have an ‘all hands’ meeting or a ‘town hall’ and make sure everyone knows what happened and why and let them see that You made the decision, not some faceless ‘them,’ and they will know why you did it, rather then guessing and making up stories.


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