leadership tune up

Are your standards slipping? What’s the overall feel in your department or business? How’s the energy on a daily basis – good, bad, ok but a little low? Are you proud of the work your folks put out, concerned, or hoping and waiting for it to turn around and get better?

Once things start to slip a little, they generally continue to slip. Over time we tend to adjust. We stop striving, we coast a little, we put our attention on something else. We don’t notice it at first, but after a while we realize things are really out of sync and we wonder how it got so bad so quickly.

Well, it didn’t. People don’t suddenly stop caring either. They don’t just wake up one day and decide to never again give their full effort. But us humans will give 99% effort of the day before. Think about that. A difference of only 1% less effort, less energy, less engagement. That’s barely noticeable. In fact, if it went right back up to 100% the following day, we’d never even notice the blip. Likewise, if it drops another 1%, we’ll likely never feel it. Until we do…

My car started running rough a month or two ago. It started off intermittently. I thought it was just a bad tank of gas at first. It would hesitate, idle roughly, or even die at stoplights. Then it would be fine for a few weeks. But the gaps between kept getting closer and closer until, one day out of the blue (not really) it started to run poorly all the time.

At 80,000 miles I figured it was due for a tune up. The manufacture says it goes 100,000 miles before it needs spark plugs. The forums say real world is more like 60-80,000 miles. Theoretical is nice, but it doesn’t help my car run better. $20 worth of spark plugs and 30 minutes of effort and it’s running great again.

Most striking wasn’t that it was idling and accelerating smoothly again – I expected that. No, the biggest surprise was how much better it runs. It accelerates quicker and revs more freely. Going from bad to acceptable was expected. But the subtle yet noticeable difference between acceptable and really good was actually a bit astonishing.

It was that 1% difference. I never noticed when it slipped from great to good, but I did notice good to poor. That has me really wondering about my own leadership. I would notice if my area suddenly performed poorly, but would it really catch my attention if it gradually declined to acceptable?

Would I notice if the energy was consistently getting a little worse? Would I notice if overall customer service slipped a little? Could I tell the difference if my team had tapered over time to being mostly engaged?

I’m not so sure I could and that has me worried. Tuning up our leadership is not quite as easy as changing spark plugs, but probably needs to be done regularly. So what can I, you, or any leader do about it? Hmmm. A few thoughts come to mind and I’d love to get your perspective:

Discuss your vision and ideals. A lot. More than you think your need to. Your vision should excite you, so use that enthusiasm to get others on board and understand your expectations. They don’t have to have your passion (it’s nice if they do) but they do need to be completely clear on where you stand and the level of performance you want.

Be straight forward and tell the team your concerns that standards could slip over time. Tell them that you’ll be more involved and have more feedback. Not to be nitpicky or a micromanager, but because you care. You want them to be at their best. You want the team at its best. You want to be at your best.

Ask for feedback from the team about your own performance. Do you seem different lately? Do you have less energy or seem less engaged? Maybe they’ll tell you and maybe they won’t, but you owe it to them and yourself to ask. [Quick caveat: never ask for feedback if you are not 100% willing to consider it and do something about it.]

Shatter isolation by getting the team involved in cross-functional projects, both within the team and throughout the organization. It helps prevent a narrowing view and helps invigorate things with new ideas.

Ask the questions about what’s going great and what could improve regularly. Don’t expect people to come to you. Go to them.

What else?

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