LUKE
Yeah, they sure do make a lot of
cold, hard, noise, Captain.
The Captain feeds his fury staring, then reaches out his
hand and Boss Paul lays the blackjack in it. As the chain
guards finish and stand up, trembling with rage, the Captain
takes a convulsive step forward and brings the sap down behind
Luke’s ear. As Luke tumbles down the littered embankment
toward the men:
CAPTAIN
Don’t you never talk that way to me!
You hear? You hear? Never!
His rage subsides and his voice becomes calm, reasonable.
CAPTAIN
(to the men)
What we got here is failure to
communicate. Some men you can’t reach,
that is they just don’t listen when
you talk reasonable so you get what
we had here last week, which is the
way he wants it, well he gets it,
and I don’t like it any better than
you men.

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Many of you will recognize these famous lines from Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  For those of you under the age of 35, you really should check out this classic from Netflix.  Cool Hand Luke is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment.  One line of the film’s dialogue from Strother Martin, who plays the prison warden called Captain, is often quoted: “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” Anyone seeing the movie realizes that Luke is very aware of what Captain is communicating; he just doesn’t accept it.

For years there has been a colossal focus around the concept known as a Lack of Communication.  The prevalence of the so-called communication deficiency has become a magnetic reason for which to attract every problem.  The more heed I give to this issue, the more I am convinced there is no such thing as a “lack of communication”.  This vague ambiguous term has been propagated to justify every fault from why the paperclips ran out, to the Strategic Plan’s failure, and the company’s underperformance.  The communication failure movement has become one of the great “cop-outs” of our time.  As a Leader, you must eradicate this excuse from your business.  The elimination of this one term from your business will immediately improve cooperation, attainment of goals, and your overall business performance.

I recognize the implication of my position.  It concludes all of those classes and seminars you have participated in, from all of those communication consultants were an immense waste of time and money.  And even worse, rather than aiding problematic situations, they have been harmful.  Yes, that is exactly my conviction.  Communication facilitators who have come to your company and lectured about listening, personality styles, diversity, the role the sexes, etc., were misguided.  Sure there is value in being a better listener and understanding others perspectives and traits, but the basic premise, that if we just learn to “talk” to each other correctly everything else will work itself out is vastly erroneous.  Communication experts and consultants are today’s business “snake oil” salesman.

Anyone who works with me will hear me refer to the concept of “root cause” analysis. The root cause is the underlying reason a problem exists.  In my article, Creating Great Ideas by Exercising Your Mind, I compare root cause methodology to a four year old asking, “Why?”  If you’ve studied and implemented this concept, you already realize that unless you get to the root cause of situations, you really are just putting impermanent Band-Aids on potentially permanent problems.  You are reacting to fires and creating the subsequent emergency.  The idea or concept of “communication problems” is about as far away from a “root cause” analysis as you can get.  Communication problems are only symptoms at best.  If you are going to be a Street Smart Leader you need to realize that communication is never the problem.  You need to start asking “Why?”

Let me give you an example: Joe and Sally have a project assigned to them.  They both go off and begin to work on the project.  Two weeks later the project is due and after reviewing their work you discover you are completely disappointed with their product.  Their work is inconclusive, incomplete, inaccurate, and you are baffled by their inability to have concluded the assignment properly.  As you expound your frustration to them, they begin to ponder the excuses as to why they should not be held accountable.

First, they remember the communication consultant who came to the company last quarter.  And since it was made clear in the classes that communication problems are the “root of all evil”, they quickly go there.  They assert there must have been a communication problem between you and them for the work to be so far off from your expectation. Somehow you didn’t explain the task properly or they took away the wrong information or concept of the task. Now you know better, and although it would be uncomplicated to concur with them, endorsing the communication consultant’s viewpoint, your stomach binds into a knot.  As a leader, you know this isn’t right.  You know they were furnished clear concise directives.  You expected them, with their level of experience and competency, to fill in the blanks and perform; because after all it is not your job to hold their hands through every step of an assignment. You make this clear.

Next, they look at each other and begin to discuss the communication failure they must have had between themselves.  Apparently they didn’t have enough time to meet, or when they did meet couldn’t agree, or maybe they just miss understood what each other’s was going to be doing in terms of completing the task.  Regardless of the excuses, they are trying to avoid accountability on the basis of a communication problem.  As a leader you must crush the notion that communication problems can be used as the excuse for non-performance.

If you want to propel beyond communication problem excuses and solve issues, you must drive down to “root cause” analysis.  Often the root cause is simple; Joe and Sally just don’t like each other and so they can’t work well on a project together.  This is remedied by sitting them down and enlightening them on the realization that their personal disputes are the reason why their communication broke down.  Clarifying how petty differences will not constitute a motive for underperformance in their jobs and that regardless of how they feel about work towards each other, you expect them to leave-it-at-the-door and do their work professionally.  If this reoccurs you need only make it clear that if they cannot perform, irrespective of conflicts, you will find someone else who can.

The root cause of communication difficulty can often be a more complex reason such as the constraints of poor organizational structure or a non-cohesive gravely designed process.

Organizational difficulties can be one of the more impenetrable root causes of poor communication.  Most likely, you do not possess the authority to reorganize the company.  But you can understand where organizational breakdowns are occurring and why.  For example, does your company have a highly compartmentalized structure with different departments pursuing diverse goals and incentives?  Is the structure counterproductive to the pursuit of inter-departmental cooperation?  You may not be able to change the structural drivers that are reinforcing uncooperative behavior, but you are able to reach across those departmental walls and build bridges which heighten your team’s attainment of goals.  Some of those bridges will be from personal bonds with the leaders of other groups, grounded in mutual respect, trust and concern for the mutual welfare of each other.  Some bridges may just be the result of creating win-win situations completely motivated by the self-interests of both people on either side of the wall.  Regardless, you must find a way for your team to succeed with whatever organizational challenges exist.

Let’s take a moment and look at where a process problem is sometimes blamed on communication.  Process improvements and re-engineering efforts are major subjects and there is an abundance of books and expert programs which can be engaged to streamline your company efforts.  One of the simplest and most effective tools to evaluate your processes is a Deployment Chart.  A Deployment Chart is a matrix based flow chart showing the relationships between process participants. Learn to examine how you are asking people to do things to determine where the breakdown is originating.  Evaluating and redefining your processes to ensure a smooth flow can eliminate what may appear to be a communication problem.

There are many other “root causes” that disguise themselves as communication problems.  Some of them are complex and multilayered and require in-depth analysis.  More often than not, they are the progenies of lack of commitment, lack of focus and lack of creativity.  Once you barricade “lack of communication” as an excuse for non-performance and demand to understand the root cause of your team’s failures, you will activate an immediate acceleration in accomplishment. I realize there may be some communication consultants out there, who upon reading this, will conclude that I just do not understand communication issues.  I would contend it is the superficial ideology of these consultants that is at the “root cause” of many communication issues.  I challenge you to think seriously on this subject and dismiss the tide of brainwashing which has overcome us in recent years.

You need to be a Tough Leader and deal with the hard subjects behind your problems.  You need to scrape back the artificial answers such as “lack of communication”, and excavate your genuine challenges.  Only then are you going to discover tangible solutions. Avoid the “feel good’ fallacy of better communication. Deal with the material issues and produce substantial results.  Those real results will be the building blocks for your Winning A-Team.  And one more thing… it is amazing how well a Winning A-team can communicate!

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I entered management believing that as long as I was able to develop my department’s performance and meet company goals, I was doing my job and the rest would take care of itself.  So I did my job and waited for my career to move forward.  And of course it did, but not always as quickly as some of my contemporaries who didn’t appear to have my list of accomplishments.  It took me a few exasperating years to study their advancements and realize they were doing more than taking care of their jobs.  They were taking care of their careers.    

If you are to develop a successful career plan you must constantly concentrate your efforts in a three pronged attack.  Just doing your job well will only result in being able to do it for a very long time.  Eventually the mundane will take root and either you or your boss will tire of it and execution will diminish.  Inevitably your goal must be to advance stronger and faster than those surrounding you. You are in a race against time for success and the longer it takes to move up the chain of command the more unmanageable and improbable it becomes.  Launching a comprehensive campaign that showcases your talents and accomplishments will set you on the road to advancement. 

You must learn to manage three different entities every day with efficacy.  They are: 1) The Others you work with, 2) Yourself and 3) Your Boss.  Your ability to concurrently contend with the challenges of these three competing interests is essential. 

MANAGING OTHERS

We naturally imagine our subordinates when thinking of managing Others.  But just as importantly are our peers, staff members, and those in the company who are postured to observe our performance.  It is crucial to have this group’s Respect!

The easiest way to gain the respect of Others is to Win.  People love winners and thrive on the opportunity to be connected with triumph.  Focus your efforts on being a Tough Leader who accomplishes problematic strategic issues.  Do not be concerned with “being liked”.  Victory is more important.  Others will notice who is winning and who is losing.  Your success builds influence and influence in turn creates cooperation.  With the cooperation of Others, you are armed to take on your next challenge with momentum.

Gaining cohesive long-term cooperation depends on being an advocate of Others’ needs.  Support your team and your peers with passion.  Too many managers make the mistake here of keeping score and waiting until they owe someone a favor before throwing in.  This egocentric approach only diminishes your short term effectiveness and slows your own progress.  Gain the respect and cooperation of Others around you by “paying it forward” when it comes to support.  Acquire a deep understanding of what they need to win and contribute everything you can to their success.  They will not overlook it and you will have increased your own power-base.

If you win and are supportive, you will gain Others’ admiration, but you really need their respect.  This requires bonding with them.  You cannot expect someone to run through walls for you if you do not have any bond with them.  Get to know the people around you.  Know their interests and passions.  Understand what makes them tick.  Care about them!  Running into them a few times a week in meetings is a disingenuous attempt at a relationship.  Relationships are of consequence and they matter.  Build them with the people around you.  Enrich your team’s and coworkers’ daily experience with a giving and caring atmosphere.

MANAGING YOURSELF

I have seen managers who are utterly out of control when it comes to managing themselves.  It is a spectacle they are even making it through the day.  They storm through what should be normal daily activities as if they were drowning.  If you are habitually disorientated, people will mistrust your capacity.

Managing yourself is a principal of Quality.  You must grasp the concept that Quality is not a part time thing and it must permeate all you do.  You cannot ask for or demonstrate quality in some things and ignore others.  Quality is a Value.  Episodic deviation from the value of Quality only creates hypocrisy when you try and enforce standards on others.  A commitment to quality elevates the game and demonstrates to others the expectations you command in all things – all of the time.  

Start with your personal organization.  Are you together?   Are you prepared?  Have you thought issues through?  You must become impeccable with your time management.  Know where you are supposed to be and know what needs to be done and when.   Meeting deadlines should be a “no sweat” routine with which you never falter.  Look at your personal presentation, your office, your briefcase, and your organizational system.  Do they tell people you are devoted to Quality?  Clean-up any chaos.  Think about how you are perceived in meetings, how you order lunch.  Make sure you are a self-reliant, prepared, and poised Leader.  No one will want to follow you if you can’t even find your keys.  Simply put… be professional!

Although a large part of your responsibilities revolve around the work of others, inevitably, you have work of your own to produce.  The production of your work should be skilled and precise.  The quality of anything leaving your desk must be first rate, accurate and presentable.   Believe everything you create will be posted on the bulletin board in the lunchroom or your boss’s door.  Set a goal to produce the preeminent work within the company.   Anything less lowers the bar for everyone and questions your credibility.  This is a tangible opportunity to create career distance between you and your peers.

As a professional producing striking work product, your next self-management focus is to demonstrate the attributes and values you require in others.  If you expect a strong work ethic, demand one of yourself.  If you desire positive attitudes, mandate yourself to be upbeat in the worst of times.  As your career expands, you leave behind the ability to “do everything you ask your employees to do”.  But you always retain the obligation to exhibit how to comport oneself in difficult situations and to ensure your organization’s Values are alive and well every day.   

MANAGING YOUR BOSS

This essential concept is often a surprise to many.  After all, isn’t my boss beholden to manage me?  Isn’t he answerable for me in the same way I am responsible for my subordinates?  The answer is, “No”. We just discussed how you were responsible to manage yourself.  If you want your career to thrive, you need to own it and not be complacent with anyone else having accountability for your success.  Managing your boss safeguards your accomplishments and profiles them before the organization’s executives.  Here is where your career takes flight.

You need to become your boss’s Star; his “Go To” person.  This originates with understanding and being proactive to his needs.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  It is not his job to make your duties easier for you. It is your job to make his life easier for him.  Think about that for a second.  What does he need?  What is important to him?  What are the organizational goals he is focused on?  You want to be the first one to the table with real deliverable solutions to make him successful.  Forget the idea that he is there to care for you.  Your goal is to ultimately assume his position.  Start to think of yourself already in his job.  Who is going to take care of you then?  If you understnd my point, you realize relying on your boss for your needs is a self–limiting proposition.  Get out in front of helplessness and stay there.  Also, it isn’t your priority to change your boss.  All bosses have their quirks and difficulties.  Accept them, for if you don’t already, you will have your own challenges for others coming soon.  It is your duty to lead your team to success despite any shortcoming of your boss.  Waiting for a change in his habits is only placing your career on suspension.  Learn to make your system work around his imperfections.      

To become his “Go To” person, you must have ideas; well thought out ideas that can be put into action with winning results.  You need to be able to discover the methods and means for improving your organization.  Your team must produce “standout” performance.  When an initiative of your boss is meeting resistance in other parts of the company, show how your team can break through the barriers and make it happen.  As you create innovative ideas and your team outperforms the norm, your accomplishments will be noticed.  But don’t be surprised when your boss gets a certain amount of credit for this.  After all, you are on his team.  Don’t get stuck here; just keep moving forward and your star will continue to rise and shine.

Too many managers never learn how to “Get to Yes” with their boss.  They think of an idea and throw it up.  They run into their boss’s office on Monday morning and excitedly spew out, “I have an idea. I need people.  I need money.  And then I can do so and so.”  Usually their boss impatiently listens for about 15 minutes and then says something like, “We’ll see.”  Doesn’t this sound familiarly like our Parent’s response when we were ten years old?  It should, because these managers are acting like ten year olds.  If you have a well thought out winning idea, then you need to guarantee it will get approval.  It is your responsibility to get the “Yes”.  Managers who sit around complaining that “nothing ever changes around here” have failed.  They are incapable of putting forth a compelling and unquestionable argument to get a “Yes”.  Commit to yourself that you will never receive a “No” from your boss again.  “Yes” isn’t just about being right.  It is about timing, presentation, and competing interests for resources.  It is about ROI, Values, and your Boss’s agenda.  If you’re not ready to win on all of the fronts, don’t pitch your idea.  Once an idea is pitched and denied, it usually dies.  Be patient, properly prep your idea, wait for alignment, and wait for your boss to be ready to say “Yes”.  Only then should you go for it and present.  If you can acquire this skill you will be among the few who can say, “My boss never says “No” to me.”  And your boss will learn to trust in the strength of your ideas and your abilities.  He will be able to count on you as a solid thinker and contributor.

 Managing Others, Yourself and Your Boss may seem like too many balls to keep up in the air.  It requires careful forethought, diligent planning, and unswerving implementation.  It entails an awareness of the priorities going on around you which you may not necessarily be involved in.  But most of all, it requires a commitment to being the best manager you can be in all areas of your working life.  If you’re not up for the challenge, you might continue to succeed at your job.  But if you want to be a Street Smart Leader, you will keep an active focus on these three priorities and vault past your contemporaries for that next promotion.