Leadership Case Study with example
To complete the project within the deadline with an effective manner or running successful company leadership plays an important role in any team. This blog explains the case study of leadership in a company.
When reading the steps for preparation, action, and follow through, consider the following situation that team leader Bill faced. Bill works for a company located in the northeastern United States that has grown to more than 100,000 employees and has a long history of innovation. Bill aspires to grow her role in the company.
The project Bill was leading was what was known in our organization as a “bright lights project,” as it had intense importance to all the executives, including the CEO. The company was counting on it, but there was trouble brewing. The project was getting significantly behind, and the team was blaming Carl.
Carl was showing up late but not very late. He was at all the meetings that he was needed at but didn’t seem engaged. These were trouble indicators enough but, in addition, his work was behind schedule and, even worse, it was sloppy. The pressure and Carl’s lack of energy were starting to affect the team. Some members were getting angry.
Others were starting to show up late too. The high team energy from project kickoff was fast dissipating. Bill should have spotted the trouble earlier and acted earlier, but in this situation, she didn’t. She realized she needed to act now.
Prepare for Proper Action
As a leader, you have seen situations where it was clear that if issues weren’t already apparent, they soon would be apparent to everyone and that they should be addressed quickly.
Your ability to handle such situations is greatly amplified if you can first clearly hear your own inner voice. Understand why the situation at hand is important to you and to the group and why it is important that it be resolved.
Mastering this ability to hear and understand your emotions and what is behind them will help you immensely in taking proper action. Four steps are needed to prepare for proper action.
STEP 1 Understand What Emotions You Are Feeling and Why
What emotions are you feeling and why? It is really important to listen to your inner wisdom. If you are frustrated or angry with someone, it is important to stop and ask yourself why.
Is the behavior simply annoying or will the behavior negatively impact the organization? Your answers are likely an important part of the discussion you need to have.
Having to deal with situations like the one in the case study is often very upsetting to a leader. There are many reasons why:
Leaders already have too much to do. Thus, it is upsetting when some unexpected trouble occurs, but more than unexpected, the trouble often feels like it is a pointless, irritating distraction.
Sometimes it seems that the greater the pressure the project and the leader are under, the greater the level of difficulty of the situations that arise. Often, it is just that the impact of ordinary trouble escalates if the project is already under pressure.
Troublesome situations almost always stir up strong emotions. The fog the drama creates makes it more difficult to see the real problems. This is true for the people around the situation and for the leader.
Confronting people with performance issues is difficult. Talking to people about what they are doing wrong evokes the feeling of being in conflict. Leaders, too, are susceptible to the fight or flight syndrome.
Any of these root causes by themselves can cause upset. When other problems join in, as tends to happen, it can be magnified into a worst-case scenario, adding to the stress level. The typical reactions to these difficult situations are the classics of denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.
For example, Bill had a combination of emotions. She was angry that the project and her own future could be jeopardized if the project failed to deliver on its promises. Further, she felt betrayed by Carl. There was also a feeling of shame that she was letting the overall team down that was counting on her leadership.
Emotions cloak the real problems in a fog that the leader must work to clear away. It takes practice for people to listen to their inner music and learn what their emotions are telling them. Two methods that are useful for this are:
Talk to a trusted peer. The trusted peer must understand that your goal is to sort out the emotions from the real risks of the situation. A good peer can ask questions and make observations that help you find the core of the issue.
Write down your emotions. Write down what you see as the root causes of those emotions. Write down likely risks and impacts.
You may have other methods that work well for you. The important thing is to get clear about what the issue is for you.
Bill thought about her emotions after talking to a trusted peer and wrote down the reasons she was angry:
Carl’s teammates felt betrayed and had additional unreasonable stress put on them.
In spite of her extreme efforts to make a rational plan and many difficult conversations with upper management, the project was now significantly behind.
The project was very important to the future of the company.
She personally felt embarrassed about the situation.
Carl was causing her to fail her team, her upper management, and the future of the company. Her feelings were amplified because she had experienced a similar situation on a previous team that she had failed to handle.
When Bill wrote down these reasons she was able to separate her emotions from the real problem: Carl was not performing well. The team project was behind and Carl was the center of that problem. She also realized that the situation was not as bad as it felt. This situation could be improved and perhaps completely recovered.
STEP 2 Move Past Negative Judgments and Assumptions
Most of the time we really do not know why individuals behave in problematic ways. While driving, my wife and I were just starting up a hill with a “no passing” line dividing the road. It was truly a do not pass situation.
A car going outrageously fast came up from behind and passed us. I was immediately furious at the danger that the driver put my family in. I assumed that the driver was evil incarnate. My words reflected my anger.
We crested the hill to see the car screeching to a halt in the entry to a hospital’s emergency room with medics running toward the car. My assumptions changed and my anger was replaced with embarrassment and empathy.
Why do people act in ways that are disruptive to the team, the project, and the organization?
In many work situations, leaders have discovered surprising reasons for the behavior of their troublesome team members. Many times, they learn that the troublesome people did not realize the negative impact they were having on the group.
When talking with a peer or writing things down, work to ascertain what facts and assumptions you have about the situation. The key is to truly realize that many of what you think of as facts are actually assumptions.
You most likely do not know the reasons the situations are occurring. You may have a hypothesis, and you may even be right. Write your hypothesis down if you have one. However, it is rare in these situations that you really know why.
After Bill had written down the reasons for her anger, she was able to think more clearly. She considered her assumptions about Carl. On reflection, she realized that Carl’s past performance was not just good, but excellent.
So, she quickly removed “incompetence” and “lack of talent,” which were judgments she didn’t even realize she was holding in her mind. She did note that it could be a lack of skill in that specific technology in which he was working. However, if it was that, why wasn’t he asking for help?
It was at this point that all the judgmental feelings and anger she had toward Carl dissipated. Bill realized she simply had to understand what was going on for Carl.
STEP 3 Prepare You're Clear, Short (Two Minutes or Less), Judgment-Free Message
It is critical to making your message very concise. You want the key message to be heard. You want it to have an impact. You want it to lead to positive change.
Longer messages always consist of belabored points, emotions rising, and negative judgments creeping in. The person you are working with will then begin to wander in his thinking or interrupt you, and likely start disagreeing.
This is why the two-minute or less rule is critical. Although many people think this is too short, it is actually a bit too long. With practice, most leaders can reduce the clear message to about one minute or less.
If you read the following example feedback out loud you will see that it takes less than thirty seconds to deliver the message.
“Carl, I am concerned. We made a clear plan together and agreed to clear goals and a timeline. I know you are very capable of meeting these goals; however, for the last few weeks, you have not met any of your commitments.
This project is very important not just to me but also to your teammates and the organization. And your current shortfalls are having a negative impact on your teammates and the rest of the organization.
I am concerned about you. I am concerned about the group. Can you explain what is happening?”
STEP 4 Set Aside Time with the Individual to Focus on This One Topic
It is best that you and the person receiving the feedback meet privately. Do not add other topics to this meeting. It is critical that you focus on your key message.
Also set aside thirty minutes to one hour so that time is there if needed. Most of the feedback sessions I have given, however, have taken less than fifteen minutes with positive outcomes.
The time set aside is to give both yourself and those you are talking with the sense that there is plenty of time to work this out. Bill had her message prepared. She had removed negative judgments. She had time scheduled with Carl. She was ready.
Take Proper Action
The proper action is the center of your lever for change. With preparation on one end and follow through on the other end, the proper action is the fulcrum, the critical leverage point to success. This is where you talk with the troublesome person or even a troublesome group.
Follow these steps when taking proper action:
Meet in a private space. If necessary, this can be via video conference or telephone, as is often required in our networked world. However, do not use email or other written correspondence, as the most likely outcome is to make the circumstance worse.
Deliver your key message. Do not start with small talk. Take time so everyone is properly situated, but there is no reason to delay. Delay will make the other person nervous and, even worse, it can make you nervous.
You prepared by removing judgment and having clarity about the good the person is doing. Deliver your key concern with respect and empathy toward the other person. Do so concisely and without judgment.
Wait patiently and quietly for a response. Often you may have to wait a few minutes, or longer, for a response. The key is to be patient and wait for the individual to talk. If you have to wait longer, the response is often an unexpected set of events you did not know about.
Be in the moment. The best way to prepare for the response is not to anticipate what it will be. Sometimes the response is a complete surprise: a litany of the hard things going on in the person’s life.
Sometimes the response is quick and easy. Once the response I received was “Alan, I have been falling short of my own standards and yours. I will fix it.” Given that you really do not know the response you will get, just be in the moment and listen.
Listen to understand. Stay focused on what the speaker is saying and how he is saying it. If there are parts you don’t understand just keep listening until the person is done speaking.
Reflect. Tell the person what you heard to make sure you did understand. Reflect both on the facts and the emotions. This is not a place to argue.
For example, if the person is saying that you gave him bad guidance, the proper reflection is “You are saying that the guidance I gave you was not helpful. Can you elaborate on that?”
It is fine to ask questions. It is fine to bring up things you are wondering about. The discussion part should not belong. It is just for you to make sure you understand the situation and the other person understands the impact his behavior is having.
Set expectations. The meeting must provide clarity on what your expectations are. This is part of the meeting for the other person to listen and understand. Make your expectations clear. Test understanding such that you really do trust that he understands.
Ask for action steps. It is best if you set up a second meeting for the person to be able to take time to internalize what he heard. He will also have time to build a proper set of actions for moving forward.
That is the simplest, minimal action item that should be taken during this meeting. If it went easy and fast, feel free to record the key other actions the person will take to remedy the situation.
Conclude the meeting with a summary
There are a variety of responses that you would expect when delivering the difficult message that a person is falling short of expectations. You might expect to see anger or rationalizations or many forms of excuses.
If you are centered and at the moment, you should focus on listening and also keeping clear in your own mind your expectations of excellence. The concern you started the meeting with was based on those expectations. The meeting should also conclude with that clarity.
The fact is that, overwhelmingly, people do have good intentions and are working to achieve the best results they can. Treating people with love and respect for their inner strength is the greatest part of the feedback you can provide. When you do so, they will most often rise to the challenge and improve the situation.
Bill Takes Action
Bill sat down with Carl. She gave the key message in less than one minute and then asked a question.
The message was simply the fact that the project was behind and the key reason was that the work that Carl had committed to do was not getting done.
Bill also noted that Carl was not working in the way she had observed on previous projects. She told him the project needed his top performance, but she was more worried about him than she was about the project.
She asked the question, “It seems to me something has changed. What is going on?”
Her tone was calm and relaxed. Carl reported later to me that she was genuinely concerned about him. She waited in silence for about five minutes before Carl spoke. With tears, he explained that he and his wife had decided to divorce. He was trying to keep it completely separate from his work life, but he saw now that he had failed.
He was then quiet again. After another minute he said, “I have to apologize to the team for my behavior. Also, you know I love this work. I will get back to my prior performance, but I will need help. Can you help?”
After the meeting, Carl walked into a room where the team had just gathered. He apologized and explained his situation. After he and the team talked, the whole team rallied around Carl and offered not just help with work but also various other kinds of support for his unwelcome life transition.
Bill also followed through by talking with Carl’s teammates and ensuring that a proper recovery plan was made.
The whole team rallied and delivered a very successful project. Carl’s team members looked back to when Carl asked for help as the point of project turnaround.
Work Toward Mastery of Delivering Feedback That Makes a Positive Difference
A few months after I drafted this blog and shared it with a client, he decided to use the techniques in a situation he was having. He had an employee who was constantly coming across as angry to all the people who worked for her and around her.
My client took a few days to prepare. He had one short talk with the disruptive employee on a Friday and, like magic, the employee had a new positive attitude on the following Monday.
Now months later, my client and the employee are still doing great. The formerly angry employee recently tTomed her manager. After the talk, she was quite upset but realized first, that her manager was really concerned for her and her future, and, second, that her own attitude problem wasn’t about work, but about other things.
She resolved to change her attitude at work and at home. She did. And things at work and home improved.
The first time the team leader employed these actions it took a few days to prepare. With practice, he has decreased his preparation time to less than one day. Often he finds he moves through his emotions and past his judgments almost on the spot. Further, the speed of success of the people he provides feedback to is also improving. This is a journey of mastery.
As a leader, it is important to listen to your inner wisdom. If something is upsetting you, it is almost certainly upsetting others. It is a problem for your group. It is your obligation to the greater good of the organization to listen to your inner music and take the actions that lead to a positive difference.
Reflect back on times that you received feedback that you needed to improve.
What was an example of useful feedback you received that made a positive impact on you?
What was an example of feedback you received that was a negative experience and essentially did no good for you, the group, or the leader? What were the essential differences between those two experiences?
Repeat these questions for the times you have given feedback both well and poorly. What was the essential difference in how you did it?
Leaders must always be prepared to follow through. In many situations, the conversation is the start, and the leader’s next step is to help the person to build a bridge to successful improvement. To create a bridge for successful improvement you must start with the following three clear expectations.
The first expectation is to have the intention for successful improvement through collaboration. That intent of success should be one to energize and build trust not just with the individual, but also with the team of people around that individual.
The second expectation is that you as the leader are accountable for the success of the initiative you are undertaking. It is not right for a manager to abdicate responsibility to the Human Resources Department.
If it is appropriate in your situation to engage HR officially, please do so because the department will be helpful to work with as a partner, but not when you abandon your authority and responsibility. The best success is achieved when you work directly with the individuals involved.
The third critical expectation is that you start with the belief that success is probable. This blog assumes you have chosen the course of action to improve. If that is the choice, start with the belief that improvement is not just possible, but likely.
The Case of the Expert Everyone
Bill was leading another significant software development project. Tom was a technical genius and responsible for the fundamental architecture and design of the software system. The project started strongly, but now that the team was well into software development, Bill was seeing problems emerging repeatedly.
The other software developers were complaining that Tom was going into the system and rewriting their code without ever talking to them. He was also repeatedly sitting with people as they were writing code (without being asked) and telling them what to type.
Besides the other developers getting more upset and less engaged, this behavior was causing Tom to get further and further behind on the work he needed to do.
When Bill talked to Tom about this he became agitated and told Bill that without him, these developers would destroy the system. Bill knew from experience that the developers on the project were excellent. How could Bill get Tom to be a force for good?
The Key Points of Bill’s Preparation
Bill took some time to prepare. She talked to many of Tom’s teammates. She discussed and reviewed the designs before and after Tom’s intervention. It was clear to her that Tom’s intervention had led to minimal improvements to most of the designs.
There were a couple of exceptions that were important, but they did not discount the trend. Further, she reviewed the project plans in detail. It was clear to Bill that Tom’s actions were negatively affecting team progress.
Bill knew that for Tom to improve, he needed much more than a “stop that.” He needed to have a compelling “do that” to help him actually remove the negative behavior and work toward a bigger goal. With this in mind, Bill prepared for the feedback session.
After opening pleasantries, Bill started. “Tom, you are an excellent architect. I have a question. Do you want to be an architect of a few buildings or a thriving city?”
Tom asked, “What do you mean?”
Bill explained. “Tom, currently you are spending much of your time with a few software developers, helping them with their designs and code, sometimes even rewriting.
There are two problems here. First, developers are getting very frustrated. The more significant problem is that this project is much bigger than those few buildings you are focused on.
Most importantly, there are more projects that are ready to start. I really need you there. So again, do you want to be an architect of a few buildings or an architect of a thriving city?”
Bill waited while Tom sat pensively for a long moment. “Yes, I see what you mean.” Another pause. “But, I don’t think those developers are ready. Will those pieces of code, those buildings, be good enough without my guidance?”
Bill listened and thoughtfully responded, “Tom, we can discuss that, but first I want a clear answer. Which would you prefer to be? Take your time to answer. Which would you prefer and why?
Convince me that you want that. What would it mean for you? For our projects? Which is more important to you? What would be most valuable for us? Once I know where your real motivation is, we will build a plan to help you achieve that goal.”
Tom answered immediately that he would prefer to be an architect of cities and went on to give many reasons why that would be exciting. He also saw opportunities to help improve the productivity of the organization because he saw how improved architecture could improve software reuse and lead more quickly to new product lines.
Bill stopped him after a few minutes with a big smile. “Okay, Tom, I am convinced. I want what you want. Let’s stop here and schedule a longer meeting.
I would like you to bring to that meeting a few things: first, a summary of your goals and second, a list of the risks that you are worried about if you stop doing your current work on ensuring that these developers do things right. Then we can build a plan together for how to achieve those goals and address the risks.”
Bill and Tom agreed to a meeting time. They needed to create a plan for successful follow through.
The Fabric of Successful
The properly conducted feedback session puts people on the road to success. Follow through is critical to ensure success. Here are three reasons why.
Habits are hard to break. Often, the taxonomies of troubles outlined earlier are habits. The perpetrators may not want to be exhibiting these habits, but because they are habits they often happen. This is especially true in times of stress.
Even if the problem is not a habit, there has been a disruption to a previous pattern in the individual and perhaps the group. The intention to improve is the necessary start, but that alone is often insufficient to solve the problem.
Success for the individual, the project, and the organization is important. The responsibility of the leader is to the group. Bringing the individual up to the level of expectations of being a positive contributor to the group is your obligation.
Thus, follow through is as important as taking the initial action. The following are some simple yet effective ways to follow up.
Make a Financial Plan
Intentions rarely work without a detailed plan. For example, I have sometimes discovered that people lack competencies needed to do their jobs more effectively. We would then make detailed plans to get them the proper training that would fit their learning styles and objectives.
These troublesome situations have often disrupted the ability to deliver on commitments made by the organization. Plans may have to be refreshed to take into account any corrective actions. It is possible that you may need to have further discussions with other organizational stakeholders or even customers.
Have the person make a public commitment to do things differently.
When people expect a behavior and see that it isn’t present, they will seek to evoke that behavior. I worked with an executive who often would get upset about various issues to the point of explosive outbursts of anger in public meetings. He was working in secret to not have explosions of anger.
People who attended his meetings were so used to these outbursts that they got anxious when they didn’t occur. Attendees would begin to bring up issues that in the past had caused outbursts. They would do this until he fulfilled their expectations with an angry response.
It was only after he made public his desire to eliminate those outbursts that he was able to make the improvement successful and permanent.
His staff was very surprised and humbled to learn that the executive was more upset about his behavior than they were. People shared their own stories with the executive. They agreed to help him. The executive inspired his whole organization with his public commitment to transform this behavior from troublesome to tremendous.
Coach Others on How to Help
A critical factor of success often involves talking with a few of the key people who are involved on a daily or at least weekly basis with the person working on a new behavior pattern.
I have coached them on how they can give feedback to the individual that helps lead to a positive difference. With these things in mind, Bill set out to make a plan for success with Tom.
Plan for Success
A plan for follow through should always focus on a clear vision of where you, the individual, the team, and the organization want to end up. In Bill’s session with Tom, they took less than 90 minutes to create an action plan that made them both confident of success.
Have a Vision of Success
Tom came in with what Bill requested. He had detailed the vision of what his job should be in two or three sentences. Bill and Tom spent fifteen minutes shaping it more until they were both satisfied they could show it to others. The vision statement of success they wrote was:
We envision a system architecture that enables high-quality products for our customers and boosts productivity across our division by enabling more product lines with less effort.
The system architect will provide the architectural foundation for our division’s software product line. This will be done through the following activities:
Providing the overall architectural concept.
Working with lead software designers for consensus on the best approaches that enable global gains without sacrificing specific product line needs.
The system architect will make decisions where consensus cannot be reached in a timely way.
The system architect will provide mentorship of lead software engineers.
Tom was anxious to talk about his risk list, and Bill listened. Tom did not trust the competency of the development teams to build the software the same way Tom would do it. Bill relayed that discussion.
She simply said “I understand the risks you are talking about. I need to think about those. We will come up with actions to address your list. First, let’s cover the benefits and indicators of success.” Tom agreed.
Benefits of Success
Bill and Tom made a list of the benefits of success, which included the following.
Remove technical barriers between product lines.
Enable reuse of software across product lines.
Enable more developers to understand how each product line works such that people can move between products more easily and be productive in each product line much faster.
Get products to the marketplace faster.
Enable significantly more revenue for the organization because of the increased productivity of the software teams.
Enable more revenue streams based on innovations possible from this.
The more people who understand the architecture and the premise behind it, the more autonomy developers will have.
The developers will feel more ownership of the products and get more gratification from their work.
It is likely to decrease attrition.
It is likely to attract more top talent.
PERSONAL BENEFITS FOR Tom
“I will be an architect of thriving cities.”
“People will not cringe when they see me coming.”
“It will be very good for my career.”
“I will get great satisfaction from seeing others grow in their skill sets.” (And he added when he wrote this, “I really need to do less. I shouldn’t write the code for them!”)
Indicators of Success
Bill then said they needed to answer this question: “What are some things we would see to know if we were both successful?” Tom, being a software engineer, loved this. He started talking about how, for any successful software development project, there must be testable success criteria. He loved this idea.
Their success indicators were the following four ideas.
People smile more often than they cringe when they see Tom coming. (Note: This was Tom’s idea.)
When Tom inspects people’s code, most of the time it needs no changes from an architectural perspective. This would indicate that people understood the patterns and accepted them as best practice. Bill actually pushed for a number here and they agreed that 70 percent or more was a good starting number.
Tom’s design meetings were well attended.
Tom and Bill also agreed to do an anonymous meeting survey every six to eight weeks to check on the usefulness and energy-producing levels from the meetings. They want to make sure this was working well.
Bill and Tom were both excited and tired. It was over seventy-five minutes into the meeting. They quickly wrote down the actions they were going to take.
Tom agreed to talk to the developers and tell them his new plan. Bill agreed to write down all their agreements from the meeting and send them to Tom. Bill later realized that she made two significant mistakes in the meeting.
She should have set up the meeting for longer, or just set up another meeting for later that day so they could finish. They were both so happy they missed two significant things.
First, they did not come back to the risks that Tom was worried about. He was so happy by the end of the meeting he forgot about his concerns, but only for the moment. He was still worried about the competency of his fellow developers and that would be a problem later.
The second problem was interrelated. They did not have a plan to get Tom the support he would need to change his long-time habit. Neither of these mistakes was the ultimate barrier to success, but it did slow down the success path.
Bill also told me that she realized this was the job she always thought Tom should be doing. However, she had never clearly articulated it in her own mind. She had just let the generic job description be the guide.
She had not taken ownership of making her expectations clear. She realized that she should have had this very discussion with Tom long ago. She also realized she had a list of other people she was now going to have this discussion with before there was trouble.
Do Periodic Check-ins
One manager I worked with did a very good job setting expectations with a troublesome employee. In that next week, the employee showed improvement. The manager found himself distracted by other things and did not check in with the employee or the situation until about sixteen weeks later.
The situation had decayed to a worse place then it was before. This should not be surprising, as there was absolutely no planning or follow through.
It is important to do periodic checks. These do not have to belong. The most important thing to do in these cases is to focus your check-ins on the new behaviors you are expecting to see.
It is important to ask direct questions. If you get an answer of “Things are going well,” you must ask for examples that provide evidence of behavior change or lack thereof. The details will provide you with the real information you need.
Bill was very good at doing check-ins. Within two weeks after the Tom planning session, she was checking in with developers who she knew previously had issues with Tom.
They were at first not open about the problem. They did not want to disappoint her. When she asked for details of interactions, however, it became clear that Tom had not changed his behavior.
When Bill asked more questions she found that Tom did not really set out his intentions very clear to other people. He had told them that he was going to be doing more high-level architecture but no more details than that.
Much later, Tom confessed that he was so embarrassed about the previous behavior he didn’t ask for the help he really needed. He told Bill this when he was coming here for the next action she took.
Bill talked to Tom and said that she was setting up a meeting with the key developers, Tom, and herself. She wanted to make sure that expectations were set in a way to help achieve the vision they agreed to.
The intention was to make sure that the developers Tom had been micromanaging would push back if he fell into previous habitual behaviors. Tom agreed, albeit a bit reluctantly.
Surround People with Support
Bill prepared well for the meeting. It did not take her long. She simply had her questions ready. She was going to follow a pattern similar to the planning session she had with Tom.
Bill wanted to make sure that the people in the room were not just listening to what she had to say. Active involvement was required!
Bill could have walked in with some nice visuals and projected them on the wall screen. Or she could have had handouts that represented the vision, the benefits, and the indicators.
It would have been efficient. However, it would not have been effective. Here are the key steps Bill took with the team.
First, she engaged the team to improve the vision they had drafted. Tom wrote down the elements of his vision on the whiteboard. Bill gave the people in the room three minutes to write down other ideas or questions they had.
When Bill went around the room she found a great discussion about the vision. There was excitement about what it could mean for all of them. They naturally started to talk about benefits.
So Bill stopped them and asked them to each take five minutes to write down the key benefits they saw for themselves and for the company. She also asked the team members to write down what they thought the key benefits for Tom were.
Bill encouraged people to write things down so they would have the time to really think about things. Also, writing engages a different part of the brain. The resulting conversation was amazing to Bill and even more so to Tom.
The group had a long discussion about the frustrations they were having and how removing them would enable them to grow and learn as developers. It would also remove fear for them of having their work reviewed by Tom.
These feelings could have been perceived negatively by Tom. However, everything was said respectfully with Tom and his goals in mind. And even more important, Bill started on the foundation of benefits for Tom. People wanted to see Tom happier, and they said that he didn’t seem happy doing work the way he was currently doing it.
They really enjoyed Tom when he was in his space of designing architecture and introducing it to others. This would free him to be where he was most happy. Tom realized they were right. He told me later that he didn’t realize how much people actually cared about him.
Tom told the group about his worries and how it is so important that the architecture is implemented correctly. He gave examples where it was not. They had a discussion about that and Tom realized that most of the time it was correct. And when it wasn’t correct, the team either asked for help or fixed it themselves.
Tom asked the group to help him know when he was getting too deep into the technical areas that they should own. With much laughter, the group came up with a “warning word” to let Tom know when he was doing the work in a way they didn’t want him to be. The safe word was a micromanager, and that word was actually Tom’s suggestion.
Provide Space for Learning New Behaviors
In writing condensed versions of these case studies, it is too easy to make them sound like things were easy. It is too easy to make them sound like there were instant changes.
As noted, this can happen, but change is hard. It is more likely there is an apparent instant change in aspiration. People want to do well. And sometimes they have a remarkably good start.
However, good starts are often followed by stumbles into the previous behavior. These stumbles can be caused by stressful situations when people often revert to whichever habits were their strongest behavior patterns.
Sometimes, people are so used to behavior patterns that the strange new behaviors will make people “poke” them and try to change them in ways that bring back the familiar behavior.
Occasionally, someone who had a great focus on the new pattern will go on vacation and somehow get reset and come back to work in the old pattern again.
Tom had a combination of a vacation and coming back to a code review, where he discovered that an engineer had not followed the architectural rules. Tom immediately started to rewrite the design and code for the engineer. He was actually typing the code on the engineer’s personal computer!
The engineer sat there quietly resenting it but let Tom do it. It was a familiar pattern, and Tom truly thought the engineer was tTomful for his intervention.
Later that day, Bill was following up with that engineer and Tom in a meeting on a new feature request. She learned about what had just happened that morning. She called for a ten-minute meeting with just her and the two of them.
The meeting was as short as Bill promised. Bill said she wasn’t worried about Tom’s mistake. She was worried that he was not going to get the support he needed to achieve his big goals.
She knew that people need the space to make mistakes— and also the space to recover. She was focused on ensuring that there were rapid learning and correction. In ten minutes they came up with three actions.
Bill and Tom decided to have a ten-minute check-in with each other at the start of each week for the next four weeks so that they both stayed on track with the new expectations.
Tom said simply, “I made a mistake and I actually noticed! About halfway through I sensed I was off track, but I pushed on. I should have stopped and checked in. I will make sure I do that when I feel things are off.”
The engineer apologized. He said “I really should have said the micromanager warning word. It just seemed rude.” Tom said, “It wouldn’t have been. I might have been startled and maybe even initially angry.
However, it would not have been about you. I would have been angry at my mistake.” The engineer said he would tell his teammates about his mistake of not letting Tom know and about their agreement to not let it happen again.
Over the next four weeks, there were some similar mistakes. But they happened significantly less often and were caught when they were occurring.
Tom also found himself involved in the start of other projects that truly made him responsible for architecture across connected product lines. He was very gratified that he could now handle the work.
In the past, the current project would have consumed him and prevented him from doing the higher-level work required.
Set the Bar High
It is important to set the bar of excellence high. It is a leadership mistake to recognize just effort. It is more important to recognize when success is achieved.
The key to the success of Bill’s leadership is that she didn’t dwell on the past but kept a positive view on learning with a future focus. In her ten-minute meetings with Tom on Mondays, she would ask Tom which of the benefits they agreed to were being realized.
She didn’t focus on mistakes. She kept Tom focused on his high bar. This bar of success was mutually created and agreed upon by Bill and Tom. Tom found this extremely motivating, obviously more motivating than hearing every week “Well, you did it wrong, again!”
Also, Bill encouraged Tom to recognize his own success and progress. She reinforced his observations with her own observations and suggestions. She did appreciate his effort, but her main focus was on recognizing not the effort but the achievement.
When her check-ins with engineers revealed that Tom had a flawless week with them as well as being successful with the new engineering projects, she knew it was time for public recognition. She suggested to Tom that they arrange a tTom-you lunch with the key developers who helped Tom achieve his success.
It was a powerful recognition of the effort and the journey, but even more important, Tom and Bill had created a bridge to successful improvement.
To be successful in helping people transform behaviors from troublesome to terrific, you must follow through. If you are running a race, do not stop at the finish line, run past the finish line. If you are providing feedback to someone who needs improvement, do not stop at the end of the meeting where you set a new goal, follow through!
I have three reflection point questions for this blog.
Can you think of actions Bill could have taken to make this situation worse? Which of those actions have you seen, or done?
Do you have any situations you are responsible for currently that require follow up? Are you applying proper actions to that follow-up? How do you know?
There are times when a leader has to decide between engaging in improvement and engaging in moving people out of the organization. What are the criteria you use to make this judgment?
Decision Time: Remove or Improve?
Your leadership obligation is to the group as a whole. The majority of this blog is dedicated to transforming the troublesome to the tremendous. Many of the examples focus on individuals. But do not be misled. The primary purpose that guides your action should have the overall mission of the group in mind.
Consider the case of Tom, the expert everyone wanted to run away from. With Bill’s help, he was able to recover his trust with his teammates and improve his overall performance as well as that of the team and make larger contributions to the whole organization.
If Tom demonstrated that he was not interested in changing, what would have been the right thing for Bill to do?
What if attrition of the group was high and the people leaving said it was because of Tom’s behavior? Your actions must change depending on the circumstances to best meet the needs of the mission and your group.
There are circumstances where it is clear that it will not be possible for an individual to improve to the performance level required in the time required.
For example, there are situations where only a scant few weeks remain before the launch of a product. If someone is being especially disruptive, it is unlikely there is time to properly remedy the situation when everyone is already under stress.
However, even in this situation, you may think that saving the individual is critical for future organization improvement. All the factors involved could make you feel like your head is going in circles regarding what to do.
Unless the troublesome behavior is outright illegal, these decisions are rarely clear and easy to make. Is it the right time to remove or the right time to improve?
Evaluation Criteria for Remove or Improve
All decisions this important must be made in the context of the situation the leader is facing. A number of factors come into consideration. The following are the most important.
Has the individual shown the willingness and ability to take critical input and use it for self-improvement? If you do not have past evidence, it does not mean this is not possible, but it is a troublesome indicator.
If the person has issues and always indicates that the problem is not with her but with others, then the leader will have a significant challenge.
How well liked is the individual by the rest of the organization? Especially consider if this is a fractured group in which some love the troublesome individual while others are ready to quit. These details help determine not just the decision to remove or improve, but also the actions to take in each case.
Is the individual able to raise the ability of others through collaboration? Individuals who can bring together a diverse set of abilities and personalities are important assets to organizations. Collaboration skills that are low or negative can negate positive technical skills.
Do the technical skills and experience of the individual fit the needs of the project today? Are those skills exemplary or ordinary? The big question is how much impact the removal of this individual will have on the project.
Keep in mind that in some cases the removal of an individual means a productivity boost for the group as a whole. This can occur when the person is causing disruptions because of a personality issue or because of poor quality work.
Do the skills and experience of the individual fit the needs of future projects? It is important for the exceptional leader to always keep an eye on the horizon. Is it going to be important to nurture these skills for a future project or is this project the last gasp for an older technology?
How likely will you be able to acquire the skills this individual has from outside the organization in a timely manner? This is a critical factor. In some markets, many skilled people are readily available. In other job markets, this could be a long, difficult search.
The other set of criteria to consider are the choices that you have available to you. Each of these must be considered before acting.
You can do nothing and see if the situation corrects itself. This is rarely the best solution but should be carefully considered.
You can try to help the person correct the situation within the job the person holds.
There can be small modifications to the current job. This is what Bill did with Tom. Note that it was a correction toward what she really needed and what Tom wanted.
The person can be moved to a new position or new responsibility in the same project.
The person can be moved to a different part of the organization.
The person can be removed from the project and the organization.
You could hire an external expert to help coach the person to improve.
Using these criteria-based questions and options will help raise the leader above an emotional response to difficult situations, and enable him or her to begin to think clearly about both the situation and the best actions to take.
As noted before, the table will not make the decision. You have to make a decision. If you feel stuck on the horns of what the best option is, especially if it is the removal or improve decision, talk to someone who can help.
If you work in an organization where you work for other people, get your manager involved. Delegate upward! If you are the CEO, talk to a trusted peer. The trusted person may be able to provide insights that you are missing.
Let’s look at an example of improve and one of remove.
Save One to Energize the Whole
Exceptional leaders take people to new levels that they did not know were possible. If faced with a situation where someone is headed in a direction counter to the success of the group, it is also an opportunity to take the whole group to a new level of performance.
When Bill was thinking about the trouble with Tom she filled out my table in her private notebook. It looked like this.
Ability to take feedback and improve.
Skills and experience versus current needs.
Skills and experience versus future needs.
If removed, will it be difficult to acquire the skills we need in the time frame needed? (+2 is very hard, -2 easy)
For Bill doing this was illuminating. Tom’s skills were high, and his skills were needed now and in the future. This coupled with his relatively rare skills and experience would make it very hard to replace him. Removing him would be detrimental to the overall project. Bill also knew that doing nothing was not an option.
She also saw that there were two things she really didn’t know. She knew that the developers were very frustrated with Tom but no one had quit because of him. Was that a risk? She really didn’t know.
She also didn’t know Tom well enough to know if he could take the input to improve. This clouded her judgment on which action would be most effective. She thought she already knew, but she wanted to find out.
She talked to other leaders who had worked with Tom. She received mixed information about his ability to take input. There were enough people who were very positive that she decided to go into the meeting with the absolute belief that Tom would want to improve.
She had the meeting with Tom and found that he could take input and was willing to try to change. She also had walkabouts to talk with developers that didn’t reveal that anyone was upset enough to leave. She decided she had the time to improve the situation and that the group’s success really did need Tom’s skills.
The decision to go for improvement was obvious.
Sacrifice One to Save the Whole
Sometimes the best decision is to remove. Consider the case of Steve and the projects that were in deep trouble.
Steve was an executive responsible for multiple business lines. One division had such significant quality and service issues that he was afraid they would result in losing the division’s two main customers. That division’s business was a break-even venture at best.
Losing the number 1 and number 2 customers would not be a fatal stroke, but it would be close. Getting new customers with the current issues was a major concern but, even worse, if the company did get a new major customer, Steve believed that it would break the organization.
Steve hired me as an expert consultant to help specifically with that division. He felt he had troubles in the other divisions, but this business line was in jeopardy of going out of business without significant action being taken.
We started work on designing an intervention for that specific division. While working, I noticed that he was getting into details that really belonged well below his level of leadership. I asked him why he was getting into that level of detail in this case, unlike the problems in the other divisions where he was very quick to delegate.
Steve paused and looked at me thoughtfully. Noticing the long pause, I asked him the hard question. “Will the manager in the troubled division be able to lead them out of trouble?”
Steve’s answer was a meandering one that could be accurately summarized as “I do not know.” I followed up with another question. “Steve, will you ever trust that manager enough to let him run the division? Your attention to this level of detail indicates to me that you don’t trust him now.”
Steve saw the point I was driving toward and said, “I do not trust him now. Most of the troubles in that division should have been prevented by him. Many of the troubles he is having with employees lead back to his lack of tact with the customers and their own employees.
I really don’t think I could ever trust him to run this division. However, he has been with our company for a long time and really knows the business. If you are suggesting firing him, that would be wrong.”
I said, “Steve, let’s stop here and pick this up tomorrow. I want you to think about what your responsibility is. In my opinion, it is to the overall division employees and their customers.
Furthermore, you are responsible for all the divisions. Your attention cannot be focused on just the one. You are giving me mixed messages on this executive. For us to be successful, you must be willing to trust this individual and give him the responsibility to improve this division’s results.”
Skills and experience versus current needs.
Skills and experience versus future needs.
If removed, will it be difficult to acquire the skills we need in the time frame needed? (+2 is very hard, -2 easy)
Steve now looked confident, but a bit unhappy and said, “You are right. My responsibility is to each of the divisions and to each of the divisions’ customers and employees. Not to any single division and its leader. The right thing is that this leader finds different employment. I am prepared to terminate his employment.”
Steve explained the table to me. He related multiple occasions when he had asked the manager to change his methods and attitudes. Steve was especially vivid about how that manager had been unprofessional with customers who were still mad at him after an incident more than a year ago.
When Steve asked him to apologize, he refused, saying it was their problem. Based on this and other interactions, Steve was convinced the manager could not take feedback and improve.
When Steve considered the question if the manager in question was “well-loved,” he found it was a split decision. Steve said there was a small handful of people who did love this manager. Yet many in the group would be happy if he was removed. Steve put representative “X” marks in that row to show this split decision.
Steve explained that it would not be easy to find the right replacement. However, when he thought about the time frame, he realized that the long-term health of the division was more important than finding a fast replacement. He was ready to terminate the troublesome leader and put an acting manager into position during the search for the new manager.
The questions we must consider are the following: “Did Steve make the right decision? Could he have saved the one to energize the whole? Did he have to sacrifice the one to save the whole?”
Steve made the hard decision because of these critical factors:
The group was on the verge of losing top customers.
Those customers did not trust the division’s products.
There were at least a few who did not trust that manager.
There were a number of employees in the group who Steve knew would “dance in the aisles” when the manager left.
The troublesome leader had not provided any previous evidence that he was willing to improve.
Steve knew that he made the right decision especially because the situation was becoming more urgent. Losing a customer seemed very possible, which would likely be an event that could end the business line. Steve had to act quickly and needed a person he could trust in the role.
In fact, Steve was now upset he had not acted sooner. He had known about this trouble for a long time but admitted he had never had the discussions with the troublesome leader as outlined in this blog. The past did not matter; Steve had to act in the best interest of the group that existed as it did today.
The change was very disruptive to the group, as expected. However, Steve was able to use his decisive move to make it clear that he had a high level of expectation for the entire organization. There were many other actions taken that helped the organization be successful.
The key was that Steve made the decision to remove with careful consideration and with the success of the group as a whole in mind. This mindset was the key that led to this improvement effort to success.
Consider these questions.
Review the criteria for “sacrificing the one.” Do you have other criteria?
Are there times you can remember that you feel you acted too swiftly?
Are there times you remember that you did not act swiftly enough?
Are there are any situations that you should be following up on now?