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Fighting Your Corner: Protecting Your Team in a Competitive Workplace

“The healthiest competition occurs when average people win by putting in above average effort.” — Colin Powell, former four-star U.S. Army general and Secretary of State.

Fighting Your Corner: Protecting Your Team in a Competitive Workplace by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipAs Tarzan liked to remind Jane after a hard day’s work, it’s a jungle out there. The business world has become more competitive than ever, given the global market and the exploding Chinese and Indian economies. While that also provides more opportunity, because the pie has grown bigger, we still have to scramble for our slices. We all require agility, efficiency, and speed if we’re to get what we need.

But it’s a jungle in here, too. A large organization by necessity consists of numerous teams, often competing for their chunk of the company slice. With limited internal resources, if you don’t fight for your team, you may find yourself dealing with scarce resources just when you need them the most.

In this article, let’s take a look at some basic ways you can fairly fight your corner and protect your team from poachers, budget cuts, downsizing, and all the other internal factors that can deflate your productivity.

Stand Up and Fight

Your team members may not expect you to fight for them in any sense. Most of us have seen too many self-serving CYA maneuvers over the years to really be surprised when a leader slinks off into “every-man-for-himself” territory. So why not surprise them by facing your in-house rivals like a team player?

Keep these things in mind when the going gets tough.

1. Present your needs forthrightly and clearly. Who do you think will get the resources he needs: the shrinking violet, or the fighter who stands up and asks for the necessary resources? Too often, I’ve seen people curse the darkness when they could have just flipped the light switch. If you can’t get what you want, stand up and ask for it. See your superior(s) and outline your needs clearly, especially if you’ve just landed something new and urgent. Don’t make demands, but don’t shrink from your duty to provide for your team, either. Remember: they can’t proceed unless you provision them.

2. Make it clear you’re still a team player. Even if you find yourself butting heads with other team leads as well as people higher up the hierarchy, make sure they know it’s not personal—that your intent is not to build your own little fiefdom, but to do your part in helping the organization as a whole succeed. Speak up and show your superiors where you’ve added to the bottom line. Handle your troublemakers, if you have any, so they don’t detract from your value. Continue to add value in every way you can, keeping in mind that time really is money. Innovate, ban negative talk, and continue to add new skills to your team skill-set so you can bid for new types of work.

3. If bureaucracy blocks you, work around it. When you find yourself dealing with what writer Albert Bernstein called “dinosaur brains” in his book of the same name, work around them. Don’t go over their heads unless you must, but do look for ways to meet your needs without having to kowtow to them and their altars of paperwork. A seminar participant told me about her senior VP who went to extreme measures when downsizings were occurring in her company. He was determined to keep all his people working, so he called in connections outside the company, pulled strings, and got new contracts to pay the salaries of his core group of employees. Their loyalty and commitment skyrocketed, because they knew their boss was fighting for them.

4. Stand up for your team members. Whether they’ve gotten in trouble for doing something controversial or the CEO has demanded you decrease your headcount, stand up and defend your people. They need to know you’re on their side come what may, even if your intentions aren’t entirely altruistic. This becomes especially true when someone tries to poach team members or cut your headcount to save money. Each person lost damages your productivity. So take a look at the situation, decide on the action you’ll take, and defend the team in a way appropriate to that decision.

5. Take one for the team. Nobody wants to take a body-blow when troubles come along, but to protect your team, you may have to. For example: if you head a large division and your CEO orders you to cut costs by $100,000 next quarter, find a way to make it happen that minimizes the damage. Now, I’m not telling you to give up part of your paycheck (although back when Lee Iacocca ran Chrysler, he cut his own pay to a dollar a year more than once in order to get his company back to profitability). You can, however, trim your travel, expenses, and bonus. If Circuit City had done that, instead of canning whole categories of experienced employees when they overreached and needed to save money, the company might still exist.

Put Up Yer Dukes!

In a business world where competition has reached all the way into the boardroom, you have no choice but to stay alert for vultures who want to swoop down and steal your people and resources—whether that makes sense for the company or not. When presented with shortages and the necessity for workplace competition, some people panic and do what they think they must to come out on top. Just keep your eyes open, remain calm, and block unwise attempts to take you down. Be a team player, verbalize your needs, and stand up for your rights without shirking.

Gearing Up For Success: Preparing for a Quantum Leap in Productivity

“Doing is a quantum leap from imagining.” — Barbara Sher, American speaker, author and goal achievement guru.

Gearing Up For Success:  Preparing for a Quantum Leap in Productivity by Laura Stack #productivityIn physics, the term “quantum leap” refers to an electron’s sudden jump to a higher energy state without, apparently, passing through the intervening distance. At subatomic scales, things happen that would never happen in our “big” world. Yet, it’s still such a fascinating and attractive notion that people have taken to using the term “quantum leap” when referring to spectacular feats.

While it doesn’t quite mesh—quantum effects can’t really manifest at human scales—it does serve as a useful shorthand for sudden improvement in performance or productivity. But unlike an electron’s quantum leap, the productive equivalent leaves clues as to how it happened. Let’s look under the microscope to determine how.

1. Study the situation. Take a close look at every aspect of your team and workplace setting you can think of: the individual players, the set of projects on your collective plate, what you can see coming over the horizon, likelihood of near-future changes, your productivity level, your processes and workflow system, your tools and applications, the other groups you interact with, and the environment. How would you rate your condition: average, below average, or above?

2. Define what a quantum leap would look like. It wouldn’t be a simple improvement—it would be a massive overhaul in how something is done. Perhaps a new technology or a new process. Determine what big productivity step you would take if you could. Paint a picture of the ideal productive workforce of the future!

3. Partner on the mission. Get your team together and share this vision of the future. Explain your ideas and specifically request their assistance. Brainstorm with them how you could magically jump to that place, if you could. Explain that you perceive this meeting as a springboard for bigger and better things, and get them caught up on the mission.

4. Create your roadmap. Document the specific goals that result by drawing a map like a treasure map. They should be big enough to be seen from a great distance away and far enough away that everyone must stretch to reach them. Agree on where you are now with a big “X” and the change that would have to occur. Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs set out to change the world of computing by making its power available to everyday people—a quantum leap. Both, in the personas of their companies Microsoft and Apple Computers, could see the future. They had a good idea of how to get there, and the team helped achieve it, point by point.

5. SWOT the challenges. Using the SWOT method, identify your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Determine, as Gates and Jobs did, where your Strengths and Opportunities will take you, and how they will get you there. While drawing your map, pencil in the “mountain ranges” and “rivers” (Threats) that will block your progress. Should you go around the big obstacles, or power straight through? Can you power through? Why not? Who or what will stop you? Remember, this is a team exercise, so have your people involved with every step. Some may surprise you with their innovative suggestions.

6. Start the bulldozer. As a modern leader, your role makes you a visionary, a cheerleader, and a facilitator: noble responsibilities no matter how you slice them. As a facilitator, you have the honor of making it easier for your people to follow along your chosen path and do their jobs. In the oil pipeline industry, surveying, and similar businesses requiring workers to cross great swaths of land, a “landman” precedes the crew, negotiating rights-of-way, easements, and other permissions from the many landowners along the way. You act as the team’s landman, removing obstacles to their advancement. In a sense you’re also a bulldozer, smoothing the way, filling in potholes, and clearing out trees and stumps that might slow them down. This may mean acquiring training for everyone who needs it or providing new phones, or an upgraded software—whatever it takes to make peoples’ lives easier and their work more profitable.

Poised on the Springboard

Just remember: there’s no such thing as the perfect time for anything, and if you wait for it, you may never begin. Instead, these six steps will help your team get a running start into your quantum leap into productivity stardom.

How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation

“The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” –- Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.

How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipIf you’re a reader of my blogs, newsletters, and Tweets, you’ll know I’ve returned repeatedly to the topic of delegation over the years—and for good reason. As a leader, there’s no more effective and productive way to handle all your responsibilities. Leadership positions come weighted down with more than their fair share of tasks, because by definition a strategic initiative is more than one person can handle. Effective leaders must parcel out that work and a good deal of the associated authority, so they can continue to think strategically and get things done through others.

I was on a board of directors in a non-profit association where the CEO didn’t have an executive assistant, in an attempt to save money. He was scheduling his own calls, sending out minutes, and spending his time on administrative duties not appropriate for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was paid—he was actually wasting money. When I became president, I told him in no uncertain terms I expected him to hire an assistant to free him up to focus on the strategic responsibilities we were paying him to fulfill. Ultimately, delegation extends and enriches your leadership, because it allows you to accomplish what can’t be done without you and moves the organization forward.

Like any other business system, the ability to delegate doesn’t leap to life fully formed. I totally understood why he didn’t hire someone, because I used to be the same way. Because of my desire to take on the world, delegation has been a steep learning curve. I could do any of these tasks—and so can you—so it takes time to build delegation into a profitable skill. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Do Your Homework. Study exactly what your new position entails, ideally before you take the reins. If this isn’t possible, spend the first few weeks at least asking questions and understanding how everything “works.” Examine the staff, the roles, and the existing delegation structure, and see if it makes sense to you. You may be able to ascend into the position with everything already just the way it should be—but that’s not likely—that’s why you’re there.

2. Determine what you should be doing. You’ll need to determine what should be reshuffled or tasked. There will inevitably be certain jobs only you can do (perhaps deciding on budgets, influencing stakeholders, or closing big deals); typically, these are the ones that earn the organization the most money and justify your salary. If you step into the C-Suite, you’ll need to do high-level tasks suited to your position: approving entry into new markets, liaising with the Board of Directors, communicating with the press, or arranging new financing. Mid-level managers should be facilitating their employees’ performance, acting as coaches, helping employees deal with change, and lobbying for the resources they need.

3. Delegate what you should not be doing. Delegate anything else that is NOT at the top of your priority list. Anything you can hire someone else to do means that you aren’t the only one uniquely qualified to do it. If you are to make the best use of your time, you need to free up everything that isn’t a good use of it. In a recent blog, I introduced my readers to PetraAquatics, Inc. a real-life, big-city environment services firm whose name has been changed to protect the guilty. I know a former middle manager well, and he recalls less-than-fondly his department head’s tendency to take on work others didn’t do to his satisfaction. It took a while, but ultimately this “reverse delegation” broke the departmental workflow system, and briefly killed productivity. First it turned the boss into an ogre as his micromanaging overwhelmed him and everyone else; then it all but put him in the hospital with exhaustion. It took a while for things to get back into order.

4. Pick the right person and make the hand-off. Define what the end result will be if a task is done correctly. Note I did not say the step-by-step how-to instructions of how to do it. Define your expectations: (a) the outcome, (b) the criterion for success, (c) any budget constraints, (d) authority limitations if any, (e) reporting requirements, and (f) milestones. When assigning the task, explicitly explain these details. Let the person get creative in how it’s done.

5. Ensure understanding and get buy-in. Ask for a reframe of what the other person understood you to say. “So what I hear you saying is…” Resist the urge to get impatient as you walk through this process. As a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, my father taught me that repeating orders back to the Commanding Officer is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), because a misinterpreted order can literally result in death and disaster. This (hopefully) isn’t the case for your organization, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Reinforce to the employee that any and all questions are welcome.

6. Follow-up. You’re heard the saying, “Trust, but verify.” Delegation is the situation the saying was invented for. You don’t dump a task on someone and forget about it—that’s abdication, not delegation. You can’t just task the job, check it off your list, and forget about it. Some of the biggest errors I’ve made as a leader happened when I trusted too much, never checked in, and heard about problems too late to avoid a crisis. Instead, program the milestones into your time management system and check in at agreed-upon timeframes. If someone needs help, lacks ability, or is simply slacking, you’ll be able to catch it in time and respond appropriately. Coach where requested and/or needed.

Duck the Boomerang

In part, your ability to lead effectively arises from your ability to delegate—and make your delegation stick. Too many of us end up taking back projects a direct report can’t handle and making them our own again. Or worse yet, we leave great projects to stagnate on our list, because we don’t take the time to walk through these steps.

If you’re doing things you shouldn’t, or things that should be done aren’t getting done, you either don’t have the right team, you don’t trust people enough because they lack the ability, or you’re a paranoid control freak. Offer the training people need, equip them properly, shuffle tasks around, or allow people to discover their next opportunity. You have enough to do. You can’t take on the work of your subordinates too, especially not when your salary level will erode the profitability and productivity of the task, no matter how well you do it. Delegate your tasks, and make them stick—or kill your personal productivity, your team’s productivity, and your organization’s productivity.