Friday, May 27, 2016

Puppy Leadership: Advice to USNA Class of '16

Those hats fly high at graduation.
Today, the US Naval Academy Class of 2016 graduated. A year ago, I gave my tidbit of advice to the Class of 2015. In keeping with that tradition, I am offering a piece of advice to the Class of 2016 on leadership that comes from experience. This advice touches on a pet peeve of mine I call Puppy Leadership.

Puppy Leadership is where we all start when we first have direct reports in our charge. When we were new people managers we were overly excited like a young puppy. The key is to learn quickly from your leadership mistakes. Since leaving the military, I've taken for granted the experiences I had. Unfortunately, in Corporate America, I'm too frequently reminded that not everyone has had the same opportunities I had in my 20s to lead many dozens of direct reports. Specifically, I'm referring to being a calm, thoughtful, and, most importantly, an outwardly focused leader.

Several times, I have been a manager's first direct report. This has been especially painful for me when my new manager has spent more than a decade as a career individual contributor. Individual contributors are the people in the trenches. They're the ones doing the real work such as software engineers, copywriters, graphic artists, sales account managers, etc. Individual contributors are knowledge workers who need quiet working conditions to create and get things done. Individual contributors need to focus inward, on their work, which is great for what they do. However, in my experience, it becomes a problem when a long time individual contributor moves up into people management without proper training. Proper training starts with the dos and don'ts of good leadership practices. Leaders set the example, more so by their actions than their words. My list of dos and don'ts focuses more on the don'ts, as in don't do this or don't do that. Over the years, I've complied this list of bad leadership practices I've experienced and I've made some of these mistakes, myself. There are many more traits of a bad leader that you can add to this list, in the comments section. In the mean time, read and learn quickly, young grasshopper. Do not make the same mistake twice.

A poor leader will frequently...

0. Not supervise, which is the most important leadership step.

1. Tell a direct report to do something urgent, and then interrupt with either other tasks or asking for unnecessary status updates that impede progress.

2. Micromange, meaning they will tell a direct report how to do their job. Save the how for training sessions and don't confuse supervision with micromanagement.

3. Not inspect subordinate's work before passing it along and then blame the subordinate when their work is rejected. A leader must inspect what they expect.

4. Send an e-mail on a non-pressing issue and then immediately followup with an interruptive text or phone call asking, "Did you receive my e-mail?" Equally annoying is sending multiple messages as a stream of consciousness instead of taking a minute or two to think things through.

5. Fail to keep track of both their own tasks and of the tasks they've delegated. Since they're not tracking delegated tasks, they can't effectively supervise to ensure that tasks are completed.

6. Dump tasks on subordinates, instead of delegating. The poor leader will task subordinates when items pop into their head, regardless if it's in the hallway, lunch room, or at the bar over a beer. Set your subordinates up for success by delegating to them when they're best poised to receive and write down your tasks.

7. Fail to clearly define and prioritize tasks they've delegated with deadlines. It's best to get confirmation from a subordinate that a deadline is reasonable.

8. Make busy work when stressed and mistaken activity for progress.

9. Go first when leading a staff meeting. When a leader runs a staff meeting, they should hear from all of their subordinates before delegating tasks since the work of a staff member may already address an issue.

10. Show up first to eat free food at a corporate event and do very little to contribute to the event.

11. Think a subordinate's on-call, day and night, to be tasked at any moment, regardless of a task's urgency. A poor leader does this because they're afraid of forgetting the task and they want to get it off their plate.

12. Explain the same thing repeatedly, over and over again, frequently, time and time again; both in e-mail and when speaking. It's redundant and wastes people's time, needlessly. (Yes, there is an intentional redundant pun in this item.)

13. Make a plan. Tell it to you. Then change the plan for a non-obvious, trivia reason and not relay the changes.

14. Interrupts productivity by calling for meetings at the last minute, with little notice and no agenda.

15. Delegate tasks while borrowing a senior manager’s authority (Damn XO), then they fail to see why their own tasks aren’t carried out by direct reports.

16. Speak negatively about others, behind their back, rather than addressing the problem with a real solution.

17. Increase assignments without adjusting timelines. Something's "gotta give," either the deadline or the work quality. You can have it good, fast, or cheap. Pick only two.

18. Be overly concerned with using their subordinates to make themselves look good, especially by taking credit for their subordinate's accomplishments while dodging responsibility for their shortcomings.

The bottom line for all leaders is: Do you inspire people to go out of their way for you? If you don't then adjust your leadership style before assuming it's due to poor subordinate performance. You're the leader, so lead. At the end of the day, you're responsible for everything your team does and fails to do. Don't be that overly excited puppy, bouncing off the walls and yelping at everyone.

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