Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Leaders Undermine Their Own Initiatives

I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.

That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.

So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:

Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."

Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see managers who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.

Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some who occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.

Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters." 

Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.

Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over a several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.

Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dealing with Problem Employees

That underperforming or intractable employee may be a bigger problem than you think. Studies show that such employees have a deleterious effect on the workplace. When managers fail to deal effectively with problem employees the problem spreads, leading to diminished productivity (as much as 30-40%), higher turnover, and lower morale in the office.

Unfortunately, managers are too often reluctant to tackle the problem. Sometimes the employee is a solid performer but difficult to get along with. Sometimes the blame for conflict with coworkers is hard to assign. More often, managers are simply putting off the unpleasant task of confronting the offending colleague.

But addressing a problem employee doesn't need to be unpleasant or confrontational. In fact, you'll have better success in resolving these issues if you can avoid negativity. Here are some tips for dealing with troublesome employees:

Get involved early. When you procrastinate, the problem often gets worse. It's like dealing with an infection; early intervention prevents it from worsening and spreading. But left untreated, even a small infection can grow and cause serious damage. Early involvement is particularly important when interactions between the employee and others are strained. Don't underestimate the potential for unresolved issues between people to escalate into a problem that's far more difficult to correct later.

Get feedback from others. The objective is to make a fair assessment of the employee's shortcomings. Don't rely on a handful of complaints, or a perception that isn't validated by the facts. If the perception is that the employee makes too many mistakes, document what mistakes have been made. If you think the employee is difficult to get along with, see if others concur. But a warning: Don't ask leading questions or spread gossip. You don't want to bias the feedback you receive or make matters worse.

Carefully inform the employee of the problem. How you frame the problem when  addressing the employee sets the tone for the path forward. If you come across as confrontational or critical, it will be harder to get the employee to respond in constructive fashion. Try to stick to the facts without adding commentary. If your conclusions are subjective, state them in a manner like: "My perception is..." or "I've gotten feedback that..." Focus on behavior and outcomes without impugning the person's character or motives.

While you're striving for objectivity, people's perceptions cannot be ignored. In the realm of human interactions, perception is reality. The offending employee may want to dispute the claim that he comes across as dismissive to coworkers, but the only resolution is to change those perceptions. On the other hand, it's not uncommon to find that others share the blame for problems with the employee in question. The remedy will often involve other people.

Distinguish between can't and won't. An employee who lacks ability is a far different problem than one who has a poor attitude. In many cases, the latter is a more difficult challenge. Determine which is the case by exploring with the employee the reasons behind her actions. Typically, this will involve asking "why" questions. Keep in mind that the employee may be reluctant to tell you the real reason why. So if you suspect she's holding back, probe further with nonthreatening questions like: "Can you describe the steps you take to check your work?" or "Is there a reason that you find it hard to work with him?"

Explore unintended reinforcers. Behavior is a function of its consequences. So if you want to understand why undesirable behavior persists, you want to look for consequences that have unintentionally reinforced that behavior. For example, the employee may ignore some quality control steps because the firm places greater emphasis on meeting schedule. Being short with coworkers may reduce interruptions. Unless you address these reinforcers, the problem employee will probably struggle to make the desired behavioral changes. Remember, what gets rewarded gets repeated.

Develop a performance improvement plan. There are three basic components of this plan: (1) desired outcomes, (2) action steps, and (3) implementation support. Having characterized the problem and its sources with the employee, you then want to specify what changes you need to see. The more specific and measurable, the better. Next define the actions needed to achieve those outcomes. It's best to let the employee take the lead in doing this, because he will be more likely to take steps that he has chosen. Finally, don't overlook determining how you will support and reinforce those actions. As noted above, you'll want to address old reinforcers and establish new ones. You also will need to prescribe tasks like training, mentoring, feedback, and measurement.

Help the employee succeed. If you have intervened appropriately and helped set a course of action to address the employee's shortcomings, your job is not done yet. You want to help the employee make the needed changes. Perhaps that's assigning another manager to oversee the process. But even if the responsibility falls mainly on someone else, you should have a role if you were involved in the steps above. That may be as simple as checking in occasionally with the employee (and whoever is tracking her improvement) to determine what progress is being made. Or you might take a more hands-on role, for example, providing training or mentoring. You will do well to embrace the principles of positive reinforcement

If performance doesn't improve, be willing to terminate. For many managers, firing an employee is the last resort. Yet in many cases, they would be better off to resort to this action earlier. Those negative effects on other employees mentioned earlier? They can intensify if your efforts to remediate a poor performer fail and no further action is taken. Termination of a problem employee not only benefits your remaining staff, but in many cases is beneficial for the one let go. Sometimes the employee is a poor fit and can find a better situation elsewhere. Sometimes she learns some valuable lessons from getting fired.

The key point is as a leader you need to take action when an employee is detrimental to your goals and culture. If intervention and corrective actions don't work, then don't sacrifice the welfare of the company or office for the sake of one person. No one individual is more valuable than the whole.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Is Advertising Worth It?

Advertising is pervasive in our culture, with companies spending millions (even billions) on it. So it's natural for A/E firm leaders to assume they should invest at least a little money on advertising. And therein lies the biggest problem with adding advertising to your marketing mix: You probably can't spend enough to make it worthwhile.

Effective advertising depends on repetition to vie for people's attention. Repetition costs money—often a lot of it. Tempted to spend $5,500 for a one-time half-page ad in ENR because they reach almost 300,000 readers? Don't expect many to notice, much less call you because they saw your ad. A half-page ad every month might draw some attention, but would it be worth the substantial investment?

One of the reasons firms continue to spend on advertising is they simply assume it works, even though they can't measure or confirm it. This unfortunately is true of much of the marketing A/E firms do. They presume it helps "get our name out there," but have no idea if that's actually the case. I've encountered very few firms that make any attempt to measure the effectiveness of their marketing, especially advertising.

But there are several surveys that give us some insight into how effective advertising is for professional services, and the results are not encouraging. Advertising consistently turns up at or near the bottom of any ranking of the effectiveness of different marketing tactics. This is true of both print and online advertising.

Advertising serves two primary functions: (1) brand building and (2) lead generation. Most professional service marketers assume advertising is best suited to boost brand awareness. Why? Because it generally produces very few leads (only 9% of marketers found it effective in generating leads in one survey). Lead generation, of course, is much easier to measure than brand building. So advertising in our business is generally poor in attracting potential customers, but may improve your firm's brand recognition. How much do you want to spend on such iffy results?

Even if you assume that the potential brand building benefits of advertising are worth the expense, it still needs to be well executed. With rare exceptions, the A/E firm ads I see fail to create any impression of a distinctive brand. If you can't articulate what distinguishes your firm from the rest and present that in compelling fashion, you can hardly expect to overcome the aforementioned lack of repetition in drawing attention to your advertising.

This is not to suggest that I'm against all advertising. There can be value in targeted ads that don't cost a lot of money, especially when they complement other forms of marketing. For example, advertising associated with a technical conference where your staff will be making presentations can help drive attendance in your sessions. In general, I would advise limiting your advertising to smaller, targeted audiences where you are promoting or complementing other marketing activities (e.g., publishing, speaking, sponsoring events, etc.).

What has your experience with advertising been? Have you seen tangible results? Disagree with me on this subject? I'd love to hear from you.