leadership skill no one talks about

The Leadership Skill No One Talks About

The Secret to Transform Your Culture or Results is One Often-Ignored Leadership Skill

“I’m so frustrated.” Martin, the Senior Vice President of a rapidly-growing communication hardware company serving the United States, leaned back in his chair and blew a heavy sigh past his mustache. “I’m hoping you can help me. It’s like there’s some key leadership skill I never learned.”

He continued: “Three of my direct reports are behind on projects I delegated. I walked through our contact center and customer service was a mess even though we invested all that time in training. Our quality initiative is stuck in neutral…it just seems like we can’t seem to get anything done.”

Martin is well versed in leadership and management. He knows the M.I.T. (Most Important Thing), how to set clear shared expectations, how to make sure everyone knows how to succeed, he knows how to reinforce what success looks like, and he knows how to inspire, to celebrate when it goes well, and how to hold everyone accountable when it doesn’t.

He knows all of these fundamental leadership skills.

So what’s the problem? What’s the leadership skill that Martin feels like he’s missing?

The Missing Leadership Skill

As we work with thousands of leaders around the world and watch them start using Winning Well leadership and management strategies, we’ve seen a common theme when it comes to who succeeds over time:

When it comes to changing a culture or transforming results, they don’t just start – they finish.

Sadly, organizations are littered with leaders who start, but never finish:

  • The leader who says the meeting starts at 9, but when someone is late, doesn’t say anything.
  • The manager who declared that a customer call must begin with empathy, confidence, and connection, but he only said it for two weeks and never got back to it.
  • The team leader who facilitates a great meeting, helps the team dig deep to make tough commitments, but doesn’t follow up to see that it happened.
  • The manager who has a brilliant performance coaching conversation with an employee who needs to improve in one key area, but three months later has never reviewed the desired new behavior.
  • The team leader who declares a new era of entrepreneurial teamwork, but then never asks for a single new idea.
  • The manager who delegates a project, but never receives it back.

It doesn’t take many of these failed commitments before your team loses faith in your ability to make change happen, and worse, you lose faith in yourself.

Make Your Choice

When you set an intention and follow through your confidence increases. Your team knows they can believe you, trust you, and rely on you. You credibility builds.

Finishing is a choice. It doesn’t happen by chance. In fact, the chances are it won’t happen at all.

Here’s the deal: life is busy. You’ve got more to do than time to do it. Your plan is going to get interrupted and your interruptions are going to get interrupted. If you don’t have an intentional, focused way to finish what you start, it won’t happen.

Effective leaders consistently choose to finish – but they don’t leave it to chance or a heroic act of willpower.

Make It Automatic

If you have to spend energy trying to remember everything you need to finish you’ll never do it. There’s just too much going on and your brain has limited energy. Just thinking about every open loop can be exhausting.

There’s a better way: schedule the finish.

The moment you set an intention, make an appointment with yourself or with the other person where you will complete the intention or take the next step. The key is when. What moment in time will you follow up, follow through, and finish?

Here are some examples:

  • When you have a performance conversation using the INSPIRE model, the final step (E) is the Enforce step. Schedule a brief meeting to review their desired behavior. Eg: “Sounds good. Let’s meet at 10 next Tuesday to see how this is going and if you have any questions.”
  • When you delegate, schedule a time where the other person will meet with you in person or by video to return the project to you, answer questions, and discuss next steps.
  • When you lead a meeting, conclude the meeting by asking who will do what, by when, and “How will we know?” The final “How will we know?” are scheduled commitments to the team. Eg: “We will all have our data to Linda by Friday at 4 pm. Linda will send us the new process by Wednesday at 3 pm.” Everyone puts the times on their calendar. If Friday 4 pm comes and Linda doesn’t have data from Bob, she calls him. If 3 pm Wednesday comes and they don’t have the process, they call Linda.

The key in all these examples is to make an appointment. There is a difference between a to-do item and scheduled time on your calendar, particularly when that time is scheduled with another person. The likelihood of you both keeping your commitment increases significantly.

For items that don’t naturally fit in a calendar appointment (eg: you’re rolling out a new process to improve on-time delivery and quality), you can still make appointments with yourself to reinforce the initiative (communicate at least five times through five different channels) and to review performance.

When you create an expectation – particularly a new one that is the result of training or a new process – follow through on behavior quickly. When people get the behavior right, celebrate it, acknowledge it, and reinforce that this is what people like us do.

When it doesn’t happen, have quick INSPIRE conversations to redirect people back to the new way of doing things. If there are problems that prevent people from doing what’s needed, solve them quickly and visibly.

(This is the strategy at the core of the Confidence Burst strategy.)

Your Turn

Finishing isn’t flashy, but it’s a leadership skill with a huge payoff.

Martin didn’t need to learn a new strategy or read another book. His only missing leadership skill was to finish what he started.

Finish. Schedule the follow-through. Don’t leave it to chance or your to-do list.

We’d love to hear from you: As a leader, how do you ensure you finish what you start?


leadership development Karin Hurt and David Dye

7 Roles of an Exceptional Team Leader

Your strategy is only as strong as the ability to execute at the frontline. You can have all the great plans, six sigma workouts, and brilliant competitive positioning in the universe, but if the human beings doing the real work lack the competence, confidence, and creativity to pull it off, you’re back to muddling through.

The team leader role is a tough gig. Team leaders are uniquely squashed between supporting the folks doing the heavy lifting (e.g. producing the product or serving customers) and the leaders above rolling out their strategy and vision. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helplessMany team leaders feel they have limited power to change the system or culture (an issue we address in BYOO: Build Your Own Oasis). To make matters worse, many team leaders are promoted into the role based on their exceptional technical skills and general good spirits, without much scaffolding or support.

In all the frontline teams I’ve worked with over the years, I see 7 vital roles to exceptional execution.

7 Vital Roles of an Exceptional Team Leader

Team leaders wear many hats, not always all at the same time. Concentrating on these 7 roles in your leadership development efforts will go a long way to exceptional frontline execution.

#1 The Translator:  Don’t Motivate Until You Translate

  • Key Question:  What’s most IMPORTANT?
  • Key Behaviors: Stays on top of industry and competitive trends; Helps his or her team understand how their work fits into the bigger picture; Works to ensure other departments know what we do and why it’s important.

#2 The Builder: To See More, Be More

  • Key Question: How do we IMPROVE?
  • Key Behaviors: Challenges each team member to continuously improve their skills; Addresses performance issues head on; Provides consistent, candid feedback.

#3 The Connector: Trust Them to Trust You

  • Key Question:  How can we best work TOGETHER?
  • Key Behaviors:  Communicates frequently through multiple channels; Provides opportunities for cross training; Helps the team surface and discuss their conflicts productively.

#4 The Galvanizer: Help Them Taste the Win

  • Key Question:  How do WE make a difference?
  • Key Behaviors: Rallies his or her team toward a compelling vision of the future; Asks great questions that inspire employees to do more; People on his/her team are excited about what they are up to.

#5 Accelerator: Burn the Script

  • Key Question: How can I HELP?
  • Key Behaviors: Finds ways to eliminate wasteful and redundant work; Runs efficient and effective meetings; Includes the right people in decisions so projects move along efficiently.

#6 Backer: Detect, Then Protect

  • Key Question:  How do we accomplish MORE?
  • Key Behaviors: Proactively removes roadblocks for his or her team; Helps team members recover from setbacks or disappointments; Will “take a bullet” for the team.

#7 The Ambassador: Polish the Boundaries

  • Key Question:  How do we SHARE our success?
  • Key Behaviors:  Provides the team with opportunities to communicate their results to key stakeholders; Advocates for team members and their careers; Helps employees build a strong network of position relations with other departments.

Roles Of An Exceptional Team LeaderThanks so much to Larry Coppenrath for this great pic illustrating these roles.

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn’t Working

When you’re running full speed ahead with a great idea, be sure to look back over your shoulder to see who’s with you.

A Great Idea

My staff team had a great idea. They were buzzing with excitement. We needed some fun recognition to inspire call center reps to provide great customer service.

“Let’s give the reps a lanyard like in Disney world. You know the kind where you collect pins. The employees can use the lanyard to carry their ID and access badge, and then they can earn pins each time they do something extraordinary. We can have a contest to design the pins.”

The presenter (a big Disney fan) could hardly contain her excitement about their great idea. After all reps love contests, and this one had bling. What a great way to reinforce our new priorities. We needed to act fast, so lanyards were ordered and pins designed. There were about 9000 folks to buy for. Anything x 9000 is not cheap. But it would be worth it.

The staff team held a conference call to roll out the plan. Boxes of lanyards and pins shipped to call centers across the country. Game on.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’m on a tour of the call centers, not a lanyard in site. “Oh, I think we have them somewhere.” That somewhere was most often in a storage closet underneath the Halloween decorations. What went wrong?

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn’t Working

  1. Lack Of Field Testing – “I’m from staff, I’m here to help” is a phrase that makes field leaders cringe. I’m allowed to say that since I’ve spent much time on both sides of that imaginary line. Always get the folks who you’re trying to help to kick the tires early in the game. A small pilot goes a long way. Test the concept, but also the logistics. In this case the lanyards didn’t fit with every centers badge. Programs developed in a vacuum suck the potential out of potentially great ideas.
  2. They’ve Seen This Movie before – Your new idea may feel like old news to veterans in the field. Check for scar tissue and past experiences. Ask what’s worked well (and not so well) with similar programs in the past. Talk about what’s different this time. Whatever you do don’t say: “this is not just another flavor of the month”. If you have to say that, it probably is. Reconsider.
  3. It’s Lost In The Sauce – Know what other priorities and programs are competing for attention. Support programs work best when they’re supportive of the priorities at hand (shocking, I know). If your idea feels like one more thing do on top of an already stressful job, it’s not going to get attention.
  4. Lack Of Leadership Support – If your middle managers and front-line leaders are not passionate about your idea, I’d bet my paycheck it won’t work. A great idea without excellent execution is useless. Be sure the folks you need to make your great idea happen are overwhelmed by the value. It may take a minute to get there go slow to go fast.
  5. Lack Of Clarity – Most plans feel straightforward when you’re sitting around a conference table at headquarters. Remember it’s 100 times noisier where that idea is headed. Be sure everyone knows what you expect them to do and vet all questions. Sure leave room for creativity, but leave nothing to chance. Explain what needs to be done 3 times, 3 different ways, and then check for understanding.

5 Ways To Unblock Leadership Energy

I felt my energy drain as I drove toward the call center. The center’s results were stagnant– it was time to dig deeper. I was there to help, but also to deliver some tough messages. Necessary, not fun.

“Joe,” one of the managers, ran enthusiastically across the parking lot. Joe’s energy ignited mine. The day was looking up. As we walked toward the center together, Joe high-fived and encouraged each arriving rep. They responded in kind. More positive vibes.

We entered the building and the rest of the managers sat quietly at the conference room table nervously awaiting my (and now Joe’s) arrival. The difference in energy–palpable.

Joe’s results blew away the rest of the struggling center. While the other managers shared action plans, Joe excitedly articulated his leadership vision and robust examples of personal connection, challenges and growth.

When I met with the executive team offline I questioned, “How do we get more Joes?” They squirmed, “We can’t expect everyone to have that level of energy.”

Energetic Leaders are Born, Made, and Destroyed

Energy is union, with yourself, the vision, and the team. Energy isn’t extraversion. Don’t waste your time looking for “Joes.” Unblock the stuck energy on your team. It’s not that hard. Release their inner “Joe.”

Empowering low energy destroys potential.

5 Energy Pressure Points

Your leaders have innate energy yearning for release. Get them unstuck. Their energy will cascade, and pretty soon you’ll have an entire organization high on Qi (9 out of 10 studies show well running Qi beats energy drinks without that awful crash ;-).

  1. Missing Connection – Connection fuels fire. Teach the power of connecting, with you, peers, and their team. Model the way. 360 feedback and coaching helps. So can a good talk. Explore insecurities and fear preventing valuable connections.
  2. Faking it – Pretending exhausts. Leaders pretend to look the part, fit in, mask insecurities, hide secrets. Help your leaders uncover and use their mutant powers by using unique skills that stretch them beyond their current job.
  3. Blurry Vision – Fuzzy vision confuses. When leaders lack energy, it’s often that they don’t understand (or buy-into) the vision. It’s hard to act jazzed, when you don’t get it. Go slow. Help them understand the bigger picture. Encourage closed-door dissent and questions. “Ah ha” moments radiate energy. Then help craft and practice messages.
  4. No Options – Choices ignite. Challenge your team with exciting possibilities. Leaders lose energy when they’re stuck. Stuck in their career, in a role, in a project. Help them discover options and new challenges.
  5. Stress – Stress sabotages . When leaders are stressed from competing priorities or home concerns they lose the necessary energy to lead well. Help them balance their goals and energetic pursuits.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down: and How to Fix It

When execution is broken, so is leadership. Teams that don’t execute are starving. They crave vision and direction. Carrots don’t improve vision.

Execution breaks down when there’s..

  • fuzzy vision
  • lack of buy-in
  • hidden agendas
  • competing priorities
  • confusion
  • chaos
  • apathy
  • broken teamwork
  • ?

Don’t blame, punish, or make excuses. Lead better.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down (and what to do about it)

  1. Lack of Commitment
    Excitement doesn’t necessarily mean commitment. Encourage early dissent. Ask, “what’s wrong with this plan?” or “How’s everyone feeling.” Check with folks offline. Ignored objections will visit later in uglier clothes.
  2. Unspoken Agendas
    You’re the boss, so they go along. But, they have their own ideas, stakeholders and personal concerns. Surface competing commitments. Help the team prioritize. Talk one-on-one.
  3. Fuzzy Direction
    You think the plan is clear– it’s not. Ask the team to articulate their specific next steps and timeline. I’m often amazed at the breakdowns. Best to catch them early.
  4. Moving Too Fast
    I’ve got scar tissue on this one.Early in my career my boss pulled me aside.
“Karin, you’ve got good ideas and big energy. Your brain moves quickly. You get remarkably excited. You rally the team and start running. BUT. you get running so far ahead that you forget to look back and see if we’re with you. Slow down, look back, folks are gasping for air on the side of the road and can’t see you. Make sure we’re with you.”

If you’re a runner, learn to wait at the water stops. Check for understanding.

Commitment, agendas, direction, velocity.