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Effective Leadership
James D. Feldman -- The NOWIST James D. Feldman -- The NOWIST
Chicago, IL
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I've been doing a good deal of traveling lately, and that brings me into contact with a wide variety of organizations -- hotels, restaurants, car rentals, convenience stores, specialty stores and more. As I interact with these various organizations across the country, I am struck by the lack of cohesive teamwork by some and the watch-like precision of teams at others.

I've talked before about In-N-Out Burger, because they are a prime example of watch-like precision. I have been to a dozen different locations, and the experience is always the same. The people are cheerful and motivated, providing quick, efficient service. The food is the same high quality, hot and tasty. The overall experience is excellent. So, how can 140 disparate locations over three states all deliver the same seamless service and teamwork? And why does In-N-Out Burger seem more the exception than the rule?

The answer is leadership. Organizations like In-N-Out Burger have solid leadership that starts at the very top and runs through all levels of management to the staff, building and maintaining the solid team that is critical to success. In-N-Out Burger is led by executives who provide clearly articulated objectives and strategies, and ensure they are carried out uniformly throughout the organization by being hands-on with the business. They are visible and involved, with their stores, their employees and, most important, their customers.

When you have a leader who stays in the ivory tower and dictates what is to be done, you typically have a dysfunctional organization. But when you have a leader who makes it clear what is expected and is visible and involved at the center of gravity --where the business meets the customer -- you have excellence.

One of the best ways to understand good leadership is by seeing what results when it is not there. It is not pretty: Things are not happening. Managers resort to a mechanical approach. Team members become upset, disillusioned, and hostile to their own enterprise. There is no coordination or working toward what should be every group's common goal ? satisfying the customer's needs.

Worse, a malaise develops within the team because there is no rallying point, no one to guide the group's efforts and, when things go awry, no one to intercede and get everyone back on track. The result is that team members get testy with one another. Eventually they either explode in anger or implode in defeatism. Commitment and energy drain away. Individuals begin to drift from the team. By the time the team figures out it is dying, it is already dead.

Can you "fix" poor leadership? In a word, yes. But that does not mean it is easy.

It is much easier, of course, to fix one's own leadership deficiencies than it is to fix someone else's. To fix your own, you must start with a simple and honest self-evaluation, identifying what you will never be good at or do not want to do and delegating those activities to someone else. It could be a team member or a co-leader, but the point is to avoid holding the team back. Of course, you also can work to build up and strengthen the weak areas, while drawing upon the team for understanding and assistance as you do. Either way, the successful leader is willing to identify weaknesses and act to change them to strengths.

Getting someone else to change is a taller order. People providing poor leadership generally know -- sometimes vaguely -- they are part of the problem. However, in their minds they are convinced they are doing their best, or just behaving the way their personalities allow them to behave. What can team members do when a leader lacks knowledge critical to leading? Offer to fill in the gaps, or to bring in a new member or co-leader from outside the team. It is a delicate matter, but it must be broached if the team is to succeed.

When evaluating leadership, do not be swayed by how "smart" the leader may be, because being smart and talented do not necessarily result in successful leadership. Especially beware of the "too smart for his own good" syndrome. This "too smart" person "knows" what is, but too often that really means he thinks he knows. And because he "knows", he does not confirm the "knowledge". Being so smart, people are afraid to challenge him, and he is too secure in his "knowledge" to challenge himself.

Look at what Resorts International is doing with the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. At one time, the Hilton was the market leader, as they leveraged their proximity to the Las Vegas Convention Center, headline attractions like Elvis and great service into a highly successful property. As tastes changed and competition from hotels on the Las Vegas Strip increased, the Hilton's position eroded, and Resorts has undertaken a thorough rebuilding of the physical property and the leadership team to regain the Hilton's market leadership.

There is tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about the changes. What makes the Hilton changes so popular? Leadership there does not assume they "know" everything. They talk with their team members at all stages of the process to keep them informed of progress and get their input. As part of this, the Hilton's leaders are highly visible and hands-on. They make it clear what is being done, why it is being done, and what is expected of each individual -- including the leaders -- toward getting it done. And it is all tied together with clearly articulated goals and strategies that everyone buys into.

Along with those leaders that "know", there are the ones who have been successful doing the same things year in and year out, and therefore think they do not need to do anything else. Leaders all have, in our managerial make-up, tools with which we have enjoyed consistent success. But a tool can be overused to the point that it is the only one we rely on, and when all you use is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The problem is that the world is not all nails. The tried and true problem-solving approach is not applicable to every situation.

This is a learning issue. Leadership must be about learning and growing, about openness to knowledge from every quarter. The best leaders know this and learn to use new tools while continuing to hone their skills with the old ones. They are always in a position to try another tool when the one they are using is not working. Bad leaders keep hammering away long after the pounding stops doing any good.

How does a team intervene with a closed-minded leader? I suggest fostering a culture of conscious and continuous openness ? an atmosphere that instinctively rewards looking at new approaches with fresh perspectives, and which is instinctively suspicious of reliance on the tried and the allegedly true.

But sometimes this is not possible, which leads me to the first of my Better Changes for Effective Leadership:

Better Change: Get rid of leaders that are closed to new ideas. No organization, at any level, seeks outs closed-minded people -- but we know that every organization has them. Do not let them hold your organization back.

Better Change: Get everyone on the same page. As a leader, it is your responsibility to have clearly articulated goals and objectives for the organization. But you have to ensure that everyone in every department knows and understands what they are. You also have to ensure that every department's goals and objectives flow from the organizations, with objectives and strategies that are congruent with the organization's goals.

Better Change: Be visible. Many executives sequester themselves in their offices. You cannot do that and be an effective leader. You need to talk with and listen to your team members, at all levels, to make sure they understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and how they fit into the plan. Not only will you gain critical insights, but your hands-on approach will inspire your team to work as hard as they see you working.

Better Change: Do not be afraid to fail. Failure is an integral part of success, so you should never be afraid to try something just because it may fail. If it does, you have an opportunity to learn and use that knowledge to create something that works. And when you fail, do not waste time assigning blame. A strong leader takes responsibility for failure, uses it to the best advantage and moves on.
News Media Interview Contact
Name: James Feldman, CSP, PCS, CPT
Title: Professional Speaker
Group: Shift Happens
Dateline: Chicago, IL United States
Direct Phone: 312-527-9111
Cell Phone: 312-909-9700
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