The Vacation Test

Sailing yacht in the Ionian sea Greece

August is a great time to go on vacation. If you’re a owner or a manager, it’s a ready-made test of the team you leave behind.

Can they run the place without you? For an hour, a day or maybe a couple of weeks? Will they pass the test of your being away without losing their way? Can you really take a vacation?

We’ve worked with a lot of owners who don’t feel secure leaving their organization in their team’s hands. Daily (or more frequent) calls are the antidote for this insecurity but come at the price of an interrupted vacation.

We’ve also worked with owners who leave for extended periods and don’t seek or allow interruptions, except in an emergency. These owners pass the vacation test. They combine trust in their team with a little personal sense of security to take a real vacation.

They also are in a better position should a planned or unplanned exit from the business come about.

We hope you are taking a vacation that is really time away from work!

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more about how to pass the vacation test, give us a call. We think you’ll be glad you did.

The No Asshole Rule


Originally published in 2007, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton, paints a compelling picture of how hiring and retaining even one asshole undermines the performance of your organization.

The decline in performance spans both the departments with an asshole in residence and those departments that have or avoid relationships with the offending department. And that decline includes increased rates of turnover, theft, and lawsuits along with decreased productivity and resilience. Not to mention the personal toll for “targets” of psychological distress and dissatisfaction.

The book does a great job of laying out how to identify assholes, how to implement the “rule,” how to reform your own “inner jerk,” and how to survive in an environment that hasn’t followed the “rule.”

None of the advice is better than the need to take strong action against assholes in the interest of improved organizational performance. Chances are you already know how to identify who there are (people who are less powerful than them report feeling, more than rarely, slighted, demeaned or downright bullied).

Perhaps the book will convince you that it’s worth your while to take action for the benefit of the non-assholes in your ranks and enforce the “rule” going forward! Perhaps you’d like to take the ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam) or have a co-worker take it?

If you’d like help identifying assholes before you hire them or letting one go, give us or some other coach a call. We think you’ll be glad you did.

Why Hire a Coach?

Fotosearch_swi0023The value of coaching is established in most people’s minds. If you’re someone who is skeptical about the value, reading further is unlikely to change your mind.

If you’ll allow that coaching has value, why would you want to hire a coach? Our experience highlights three reasons:

  1. Learning best practices. Coaches, including us, make their living reading about, studying and implementing best practices. These are activities that’s are hard to do when you’re running a business because of the pull of the day-to-day operational responsibilities. Hiring a coach can update your “toolbox” to the latest best practices without having to do all the reading and studying and experimenting yourself.
  2. Seeking accountability. It’s usually easier to hold others accountable than it is to hold ourselves accountable. This is true in just about all cases. It’s the phenomena behind the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.” A coach can help you hold yourself accountable by (gently) holding your feet to the fire.
  3. Increasing insight. Insight, in this case, is better self- and other “awareness.” That is increased understanding about why you do what you do and why others do what they do. It is also better clarity about what your strengths and weaknesses are and how best to change or compensate for them, etc. The point is that a coach can help you understand yourself and others better. When done well, this leads to increased influence (leadership) and improved outcomes.

If any of these reasons appeal to you, give us or some other coach a call. We think you’ll be glad you did.

A Model for Leaders – Odysseus Archetype Part III

In our last post we looked at how Odysseus, our archetypal leader, made use of a broad range of experiences and mistakes to learn and grow. In this final post we’ll discuss more of the characteristics that leaders of today could employ to their organization’s benefit.

Our protagonist understands the importance of assessing critical situations himself. In chapter four, Helen, of Troy fame, told how Odysseus disguised himself and entered Troy to see the city’s defenses for himself. He stayed in the character of a beggar when approached by Helen and finally escaped from the city with the info desired. Time and again we see him leading from the front and making his own assessment of situations. Leaders today should consider doing the same with major customers, vendors, marketplaces.

In book twenty Odysseus almost explodes verbally and physically. He knows unleashing them in a torrent of invective and action would not serve his purpose. He does a good job tamping down his emotions at that critical juncture. Executives, too, need to control their emotions to improve effectiveness.

Odysseus analyzes each situation before taking appropriate action. He uses emotional intelligence to determine what others want and how to best connect with them. He is always looking to learn about new people and changing situations. Odysseus makes those difficult decisions and takes action. He stays in character when appropriate and he always perseveres.

Sometimes, as leaders, we have to make those most difficult decisions. Occasionally we are called upon to take actions we know will affect people’s lives. We’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Scylla and Charybdis. There is some comfort to know others have struggled with these dilemmas for thousands of years. We’re not in this alone and can learn from the past, finding models to adapt to the current day.

So finally after twenty years, ten at the siege of Troy and ten being blown off course, Odysseus makes his way home to his wife and family. If you read the story you’ll find he still needs to overcome some challenging obstacles there, and he does. During his arduous journey Odysseus employs the skills and traits all good leaders should develop.

Having worked closely with business owners and top managers for the past twenty years I’ve noticed the best leaders share a number of Odysseus’ characteristics. Among them is emotional intelligence, courageous action, ability to make difficult decisions. They also tend to lead from the front, have perseverance, are lifelong learners and accepting we’re all human.

The Odysseus archetype is a solid model for today’s leaders to embrace. Becoming familiar with the towering characters in our classic literature broadens a leader’s perspective. It is an effective way to “visit cities of men and learn their minds”. Perspective is the other important element classic literature provides, in some case thousands of years of perspective.

The greatest thinkers and minds of all times have also engaged and commented on those characters. The emotional distance they provide enhances leader’s learning opportunities. Continue to lead as a lifelong learner.

A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part II

In Part I of this series we discussed how Homer’s Odysseus, exemplified a leader with high emotional intelligence who was able to think situations though, and make difficult decisions when necessary. We also considered the executive education value of perspective and emotional distance that this classic story provides.

One of the reasons the Odyssey is a classic is that Homer constructed the story on a number of levels. Many of us, when reading it for the first time, read it for the journey and the adventures. The Olympian gods add a surreal, almost Syfy, element for modern readers. Homer, perhaps the first Bard, is a master story teller. As such he advises us about all mankind, including ourselves.

In the first few lines (Fagles translation) we’re told a great deal about Odysseus. He is a “man of twists and turns driven time and again off course,”. As a man of twists and turns, this applies in both a physical and mental sense.

Which one of us has not been “driven time and again off course” as we pursue our goals? Our protagonist shows us over and again the value of perseverance. Odysseus is a poster child for perseverance. He continues to overcome obstacles placed in his way, and there are many of them. It’s a quality that all good leaders must have and employ.

Within the next few lines we’re told, “many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,” Homer seems to be telling us that a broad knowledge base is essential. Being open to wide set of people and different experiences is an excellent education. Understanding, empathizing with people is critical to success. Being able to employ empathy and diverse experiences to come up with new solutions are crucial in leadership. We learn there are multiple ways of organizing, viewing situations and accomplishing goals.

When the Bard tells us that Odysseus, “Learned their minds,” this indicates both an intellectual and practical curiosity. How do they do things? What can we pick up that will help us? How can this help us improve our probabilities of attaining our goals. Good leaders tend to be life long learners, like Odysseus. Our world is constantly changing so executives need to stay abreast of those changes.

Odysseus’ overarching mistake in the Odyssey occurred when he let his hubris run amok. He and his surviving crew had just escaped from the bloody, man eating Cyclops. As they sailed away Odysseus wanted to be sure the Cyclops knew who had tricked and blinded him and hollered out his name. The Cyclops, however, was the son of Poseidon the ocean god. So he called out to his father to destroy Odysseus and Poseidon sent storm after storm to wreck his ship and destroy Odysseus for years.

Odysseus learned from his mistake and kept his hubris in check for the remainder of the story. It was a lesson learned at quite a high cost. A mentor of mine used to say we must all pay the tuition and the cost of a good education is often high. Many of us seem to learn best by our mistakes.

Homer gives us a solid understanding of the character of Odysseus, showing us both his admirable and less than admirable traits. We too are a decided mix of both. The point is, our protagonist is human like us, not superhuman. He has strengths and faults as we all do. We can learn from both, as we catch glimpses of ourselves on our way to becoming better executives.

In our next and final post in this series we will look at the other characteristics that recommend Odysseus as a model for leaders today.

A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part I

Emotional intelligence has been hailed by many as an important component of a business leader’s skill set these past couple of decades. One of the first, if not the first, character in Western Literature to display and employ emotional intelligence consistently is Odysseus, hero of Homer’s classic Odyssey.

Time and again, he carefully considers how to best approach and communicate with the different people he meets on his journey. This is not unlike many successful leaders today.

Homer has carefully constructed the character of Odysseus as an archetype of the model man. He is courageous and physically capable, much like Achilles, the main character in the Iliad. However, unlike Achilles, Odysseus brings emotional intelligence to every opportunity and issue. He understands the importance of individualized communication. He knows everyone has their own needs and desires and approaches them accordingly.

Most leaders also find they have to navigate difficult circumstances from time to time, ones where there was just no good answer. Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, faced that very situation when coming to Scylla and Charybdis.

He was about to sail through a narrow strait. On one side was a whirlpool, Charybdis, which might sink his entire craft. On the other side lurked a six-headed, blood thirsty monster ready to pounce.

After considering the options, Odysseus made the decision to sail on the side of Scylla, knowing it would mean losing six of his crew, and possibly himself, to a horrible death. He made that hard decision so he wouldn’t take the chance of losing the entire ship.

Odysseus then made another tough choice. He resolved not to tell his crew of the hazards. He knew that knowledge would only make them anxious and unable to perform.

Scylla might not have been the path you would choose. The story allows us to see how one leader dealt with a very difficult decision. Seeing it from afar we can consider how we might have done something different and when our rock and a hard place situation arises.

So why consider this ancient Greek as a model for leaders today? In the paragraphs above we see analogies of situations in which we have found ourselves. Moreover, human nature doesn’t appear to have changed nearly as much as our technology. We remain, at our core, the same as people who lived millennia ago. One can readily discern this when studying the characters Homer and other classical authors construct.

There is value for leaders in the perspective of distance especially when (or because) it is devoid of our emotional involvement. Perspective is hard to come by when we’re in the thick of things. We are better able to judge and learn from the decisions our archetypes made. We see how they approached circumstances, what they thought, the actions taken and the results attained. Then we’re free to modify them to our present needs as we think best.

In the next post we’ll continue to discuss the Odysseus Archetype and show how it is a solid model for leaders of today to consider and use.

The Gordian Knot and Family Business

A Gordian Knot is a complicated problem where bold action achieves an otherwise elusive solution. In family business, the complicate problem is how to setup a succession plan that taps one or more family members (and sometimes a “near” family member–someone who through loyalty and years of service has become like a family member).

Having had countless discussions about planning for succession, two things rise to the surface as worthy of addressing here. First, there is a tendency to unfavorably compare the successor to the one he/she is replacing. The comparison typically goes something like this: He/she is “no [insert name of leader being replaced].”

Even when one accounts for the difference between the stage of each individual’s career (one is getting ready to leave while the other is near or at a mid-point), there are other factors that make such a comparison unfair. Specifically, the business has “grown-up” reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of its leader. Of course, a successor will be a relatively poor match to what is, in essence, a custom designed business based on the profile of the current leader.

Also, there is nothing that prepares one for leadership like leading. Being in the shadow of an effective leader or even an ineffective leader, is like drafting in a bike race. The real work is at the front.

This is all to say that comparing a future leader to a current leader is a distraction, at best. Better to answer the question, “does the future leader have the potential to lead the company going forward? Giving it and the people in it what they need from now on, not what they and it needed yesterday?”

Second, there is not enough emphasis placed on getting a potential successor experience in other positions and industries than the one she/he is in line for. Such diversity of experience “seasons” a leader and provides perspective on issues and management that is impossible to get while serving in a single organization. Admittedly, it takes courage to leave the known for the unknown. But the reward is, as is said, “priceless!”

There are other lessons for improving the chances of a successful succession like independently reviewing performance, independently assessing leadership potential, interim leadership until a successor is ready, mentors or peer advisory groups for the successor, etc. But the bold action is to determine if the successor has the potential to lead going forward, early on, and then test that potential and reinforce it by having him/her take a position in another company for at least a couple of years.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance addressing your Gordian Knot.

Lack of Turnover Hurts Your Business – Including Your Family Business

Turnover is hard. It’s painful. It means change and loss. It is the inconsistent with the sentiment of rewarding loyalty and hard work with loyalty and longevity.

Advocating for turnover flies in the face of advocating for building trust and predictability–at least superficially. It’s akin to advocating to burn a forest with all the dangers of a forest fire.

There is a reason why it sometimes makes sense to start a forest fire, however. After such a planned fire, old growth is cleared and new growth emerges.

Turnover in a business, including a family business, can have the same effect. It can lead to new responsibilities for those that remain. It often opens the doors to new ideas and ways of doing things. New employees often bring high levels of energy and engagement and their enthusiasm can be contagious.

Perhaps most importantly, adding people from the outside can add their “different” experience to the mix. There is nothing quite like inside knowledge about how other organizations do things when figuring out how to improve. The perspective such a new employee brings is often missing when turnover is low.

We’re not quite ready to say something like, “15% of your management staff should turnover every year” or that, “anyone who’s approaching their 20th anniversary should be let go.” We are saying that there is a price to pay for low turnover and that the occasional planned “burn” has tangible benefits.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance planning turnover.

Employee Engagement (Including Millennials)

During the past several months, multiple clients and peers have raised the “millennial issue.” This issue can be summarized by the question: how do you engage employees born after 1980 (and before ~2000)?

A quick check of Gallup’s Employee Engagement webpage indicates that overall employee engagement is only around 32% and so it seems, the question of how to engage millennials might be broadened to how to engage employees of all ages?

There is clear research supporting the hypothesis that both local leaders (managers) and senior leaders (executives) have a role in the level of employee engagement of an organization. That is, the attitudes of both managers and executives at an organization directly influence the level of employee engagement.

In the organizations that we work with, it is more common than not to hear that the employees would “do anything” for the owner. The loyalty that the owner creates is vulnerable on two fronts: the attitude of the local manager (that may undermine even the strongest owner loyalty) and the withdrawal of the owner (as he/she gradually or suddenly prepares to leave the company in someone else’s hands).

Fortunately, there is a solution that addresses vulnerability on both fronts. That solution is to develop executives and local managers in the art of leadership and, specifically, “Primal Leadership,” as described in the book, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

Although it is beyond the scope of this piece to go into any detail about Primal Leadership, it is worth noting that in Harvard Business Review, the authors stated: “A leader’s premier task—we would even say his primal task—is emotional leadership. A leader needs to make sure that not only is he regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that, through his chosen actions, his followers feel and act that way, too [employee engagement]. Managing for financial results [performance], then, begins with the leader managing his inner life so that the right emotional and behavioral chain reaction occurs.”

Developing leaders at all levels to be “Primal Leaders” is THE PATH to improved performance, financial results, employee engagement and successful owner exits.

With millennials in the workforce, perhaps primal leadership is more important than ever.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance developing your leaders/increasing employee engagement.

Hiring for Emotional Intelligence

We’ve all seen bright and technically competent people fail in managerial/leadership roles because of poor or non-existent people skills. The study of this phenomena finds that success in a leadership role is strongly correlated with above average people skills or what has come to be known as, high emotional intelligence. Indeed, at the top levels of any organization, where most people are bright and technically competent, the only variable that reliably predicts success is emotional intelligence (not book smarts or “expertise”).

The trouble is, hiring decisions are often made on the basis of cognitive ability (smarts) and technical expertise (competence). If you are hiring for a mid-level technical role, an emphasis on smarts and competence is fine. But, if you are hiring a future manager or executive, you had better be evaluating the candidate’s emotional intelligence. If you don’t, you miss a read on the most important predictor of their success.

How do you assess emotional intelligence and the leadership potential of a candidate? You focus on their self-awareness, their ability to manage their feelings, their awareness of the feelings of others AND their history of managing their relationships with others.

Ask about times when they were frustrated or angry. Why did they feel that way? What did they do about it? Ask about conflict with others. Did they deal with it or ignore it? How did they resolve the conflict if they did? What did they think about how the other person felt (the one who they had conflict with)? What did they say/do to move beyond the conflict? How do they approach motivating others? What is their primary leadership style (the way they approach the task of getting others working)?

This is just a sample of the questions you might use to assess for emotional intelligence. The idea is to evaluate how the person navigates the emotional world of self and others.

Ignoring how the person navigates this emotional world leaves you at a huge disadvantage when the time comes to judge how the candidate will lead or manage others.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some help assessing emotional intelligence.