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“One thing about trains—it doesn’t matter where you are going. What matters is deciding to get on.” From The Polar Express

When I heard this quote recently while watching the movie, The Polar Express, it hit me how often we fail to get on board in life, in leadership, in commitment to being the best we can be. We often run alongside the train or watch from a far hill, but don’t step up to get on.

What’s keeping you from being the best leader you can be? Is it time? Is it knowledge? Or, is it just old habits that are hard to change?

Frankly, I have found as a manager that it takes less time to lead people to do the right things than to have to correct and push them constantly to do it. Once my staff knew the standards I expected them to achieve, they went after them because they knew I would be watching for them and reward them when they did. People are constantly looking for that ray of sunshine from their bosses but they rarely get it. They usually only get the pushing and shoving when they do something wrong. And, you know, it’s a lot more fun to work in a positive atmosphere than one where the only communication is punishment.

If you don’t think you have the knowledge to be the best leader you can be, that’s easy to fix. There are tons of books on leadership or seminars to attend. And if you don’t have time for that, get books on audiotape or CD. Listen to them on your way to work in your car. It is amazing how much you can absorb just while driving around town. I have had subscriptions to book summaries on tape, which are a pretty good idea to get the basic ideas from the latest books. Then if you want the whole book, you can go buy it or get it from the library.

If you are finding it hard to change old habits, you are in good company. I have found that this is the biggest stumbling block for most people. You manage in ways that you have learned from watching others and what you think works in your workplace. You do it automatically without thinking. To do something different would require you to stop and analyze the situation and then decide how to approach it in the most effective way. You might say things differently or react differently. Often these behaviors seem strange when you first do them and you are afraid that you might look silly or less than competent. Since as leaders we want to look competent, we avoid doing things that make us look incompetent. So, even when you learn a new technique, if it doesn’t work right the first time, you go back to the old way—even though that doesn’t work either. It’s just more comfortable.

However, if you will make the commitment to take the time to learn some new techniques and practice them daily, you will soon discover the real payoff to leadership vs. management. You will build a greater rapport and trust with your employees and more job satisfaction. The measure of your employees’ work is in the results they achieve. The measure of your work as a leader is in helping them achieve it consistently and flawlessly.

“Sometimes the things in this world that are the most real are the things you can’t see.” This quote from The Polar Express summarizes the effort it takes to make the commitment to leadership. You may not notice the subtle changes in your leadership effectiveness from your commitment, but they become more real the longer you do them. And one day, you will look back and say you are thankful you decided to get onboard.

The holidays are a great time to role model what you say you believe. If your organization says it is about serving others or valuing people, take a look at what you are doing to actually live those principles. What are you doing to serve your employees, your customers, and your community? If you say you value people, how are you treating them this holiday? Are you being Mr. Scrooge or Bob Cratchett?

Being a leader who believes in the power and value of people doesn’t get measured in the size of the bonus you give at Christmas. It is measured in the way people are treated every day, but at this time of year people tend to take stock in how you behave. Hopefully you have been living most every day of this year in a way that it is unnecessary for the three ghosts to visit you on Christmas Eve. Here are a few tips for being a generous leader:

1. Share power where it is needed. If you give someone a task to do, make sure they have the authority to get it done.
2. Give credit where credit is due. Encourage people to contribrute ideas by giving them credit when they do. You will ultimately look good for having such bright employees.
3. Empower people to put ideas to work. When people see what needs to be done and you give them permission to do it, they tend to look for more.
4. Build self-esteem of others by identifying what they do right so they can do more of it. Put them in positions where they can succeed. You will be rewarded many times over with employees who are motivated to do more.

Be generous with praise and a miser with criticism, but make sure both are specific and timely about what the person is doing right or wrong. Be generous in management by walking around. Your biggest job is helping people be successful. If they are successful, you will be successful. Here’s hoping your new year will bring you success as a leader.

Whenever I talk to people about leadership there always seems to be comparisons with raising children. I guess it’s because we are all still kids at heart and the behaviors we learned as a child tend to stay with us as adults.

Just as you have to be consistently firm, yet loving with your children, you need to do the same with your employees. Children need some structure and they need to know their boundaries. The same is true for adults. The better the leader has maintained an appropriate structure and given people clear expectations, the more effective they tend to be. People can be allowed to use initiative and yet know they have a support available when needed.

When children misbehave they receive consequences of some sort to correct their behavior. When adults don’t do what they are supposed to do, I continue to find it amazing how often there are no consequences. There are a lot of wringing hands and griping about how the employee isn’t performing as expected, but nothing is done or said until the pattern has gone on so long that it is an ugly interaction.

Why is it that we cannot just give people simple feedback about whether they are doing the right work or not, whether they are behaving appropriately or not, or whether they are contributing to the organization or are being a drain? Ongoing feedback is a consequence that is welcome because it lets you know where you stand. It gives you the score. Ongoing feedback addresses issues when they are small, not waiting until they escalate.

Shouldn’t we treat those we lead as well as we treat our children? Don’t they deserve to know what we expect from them? And, don’t they deserve to have reinforcing and correcting consequences in real time, not “wait until your father gets home” mentality where the consequence is stored up for later?

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Many people say that if you do the right behaviors you will get the right results. This may or may not be true, but how do you know what the right behaviors are? For that matter, how do you know what the right results are?

When you set goals you are looking for specific results, but there are often many ways to achieve those results. By focusing only on one set of behaviors, you may be limiting yourself in achieving the results. On the other hand, there will be behaviors that will keep you from achieving the results.

To achieve your goals I believe it is a combination of the what and the how. The what is the result you are trying to achieve and the how is the behavior that will get the right result. You can not do wrong behaviors and expect right results. You can, however, have multiple behaviors that might be acceptable.

When setting goals, I think it is important to talk about the hows as well as the whats. It’s about setting parameters for the hows, not about proscribing them. Provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Then offer freedom to create within those parameters to achieve the results.

Great performance comes from having a goal and knowing what it will take to achieve it; then get feedback along the way as to whether you are on the right path or not. As a leader, it is your job to provide this.

How do I get people to do what I want? This is a universal question from supervisors. My answer is simple:

1) Ask for the outcomes you want.
2) Define clearly what the outcome looks like and why it is important
3) When you see people doing what you want, reinforce it. If they are not doing what you want, correct it immediately.

While this sounds so common sense, it is amazing how many people work with very general instructions from their supervisors. Most people know how to do a job if they have been trained properly, but they rarely know why they do it or what the expected outcome is. Alternatively, many people are told the outcome, but not the process of how to get there.

Being a supervisor today means responsibility for more people than you can truly take care of. I find it typical for people to supervise 30+ people. Under these circumstances, it is even more important that each communication be useful to both parties. That means knowing which information the person needs—process or outcome, or both.

Communicating your expectations clearly takes more time at the beginning, but it saves more time along the way and achieves more positive results. When assigning a job to an employee, use your time efficiently by clearly stating the outcome you desire. The more complex the task, the more important this becomes. However, even simple tasks are often assigned with vague instructions such as, “Get me a copy of the XYZ report when you have time.” The employee doesn’t know whether that means drop everything and do it now, do it by the end of the day, or do it in the next couple days. People generally want to please their supervisors. Give them information to do that.

If you want to achieve consistent results from employees, you must be consistent in your reinforcement. This is the element that takes more time, but has such a big payoff.

When you see people taking actions you want, tell them so. This doesn’t have to be a flowery speech. It can be a simple, “You’re on the right track,” or “Thanks for getting on that project so quickly,” or “Looks like you’ve made that correction we talked about yesterday.” You can also leave a post-it note or send an email.

When people go off-track, get them back on the right path quickly by clarifying your instructions and the outcomes you stated earlier. Make sure they have the resources to get the job done—that means people, knowledge, and tools. Let them know the impact their error has on the product or process so they know why you are correcting them. Give them useful information that will help them succeed, such as “When you don’t get that part sanded smooth enough the first time, it means the next person has to stop and fix it before they can do their part of the process. This causes delays and extra work for others. Please make sure you sand the parts smoothly enough that the next person can fit their part on easily.”

Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz who had the power all along to go home if she chose, supervisors do not realize the power they hold in achieving the results they want. The majority of employees want to succeed, but they don’t know what the supervisor is looking for, so they try different things to get attention—sometimes the wrong things. You get consistently right behavior when you ask for what you want, define the details as necessary, and reinforce it when you see it.