The Knife Thrower

knife in the back

The air was light with laughter and good talk.  It was the first time the work friends had gotten together with Sam after he left the office, and everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself.  They talked about old time, old friends, old enemies, and it seemed that no time at all had passed since Sam had said his farewell.

Somewhere during this conversation, Sam asked if anyone had come in to take over his spot, and the spot of Ralph, who had left earlier.  That led to yet a new round of conversation and laughter.  It seems they were interviewing for Sam’s spot, but for now they had a temporary worker there.  They also had a contractor come in to teach some classes.

The contractor was familiar to them all.  It was Audra, who had once been with the department, but had left — twice — after claiming she could not juggle both work and home responsibilities.  Audra had come back often to the department, mostly due to her status as FOS.  For those not in the know, that means Friend of Sarah.  Audra and Sarah had developed a fast friendship during Sarah’s early years with the department, and whenever someone was needed to fill in, Sarah suggested Audra get the call.  As everyone knew to translate Sarah’s ‘suggestions’ into ‘mandates’, Audra would get the call.

That was a good thing as well, as Audra would not be called by anyone on their own accord, for one simple reason.  Audra was a knife thrower, and her primary targets were her co-workers’ backs.  There was very little that Audra wasn’t willing to do in order to get what she wanted.  She was frequently in Sarah’s office gossiping about the latest tidbit she heard in the department, or hurling a knife in the back of someone who supposedly ‘offended’ her, or was making her do some work she didn’t want to do.  Her targets were many and numerous, and she implanted knives with the skill of an assassin.

Someone at the table volunteered that Audra had added a new trick to her portfolio.  It seems, before one of the managers came in for the day, Audra would request that her office be opened so Audra could sit there.  Why she did this caused the table to toss around some speculations.  Was it because she was looking to snoop around for something to run to Sarah about?  Was it that she thought herself too good to sit with the rest of the employees?  Was she doing something that she didn’t want anyone else to see?  The sad thing is that nobody, including the manager, would really know, as they could not ask Audra without her starting to sharpen the latest blade and aim for that person’s back.  Heaven forbid they ask Audra not to sit in the office.  The extra large knife would be unsheathed for that one.

The conversation at the table drifted to more pleasant things, but there seemed to be some seriousness in one question that a few people asked Sam.  Were there any openings at his new place of employment?  Sam smiled, and thought that, at least for now, he was able to put away the Kevlar vest, as he didn’t have to worry about anything Audra did anymore.

Got Bad News? Let’s Ignore It!

Hear See and Speak No EvilIt had been a bad year for Sarah’s department.  The company didn’t win a best places to work award, which Sarah was in charge of applying for, in two years straight years.  The staff had some very critical things to say about the services her department had provided.  Her performance ratings still had some serious issues, with her department not being a safe to say environment among the top items.

At a staff meeting on this, Sarah announced she had come up with a unique way of dealing with all this ‘bad news’.  She was simply going to ignore it all.  There would be no work to improve the situation, no going forward plans, and no focus groups.  She was simply going to pretend they didn’t exist.  She would close her eyes and they would all float away.

The staff, upon hearing this, simply nodded blandly. They were not surprised, as they knew Sarah.  Nothing was ever her fault.  Someone else was always to blame.  There was never a hint of introspection.  She would find someone to blame and then go from there.  In this case, she couldn’t, so it made sense to them that her fall back position was to simply ignore the existence of the problem, and then dare anyone to bring them up once she had made her decision.  Nobody would, as they enjoyed paying their mortgages.

When we are small children, we believe that if we pull the covers over our head, we will be protected from the monsters under the bed.  As we grow up, we learn that there are not monsters under the bed, but there are some uglier and more dangerous monsters in the world.  We also learn that we need to not hide under the covers, but rather face our monsters.  Legitimate criticism, if we learn from it, makes us stronger and better.

Leaders can’t afford to have their heads under the covers fearing the monsters under the bed.  They can’t just say they are going to ignore the criticisms, while readily dishing out criticisms about others.  It’s not the sexiest part of leadership, but a crucial part of it.  Too bad some just can’t get out from under the covers.

The Self-Answering Question

Appeal to Lord to keep his hand over my mouth

It had been a pretty much one-sided conversation on the ride back to the office from the job site.  The talking had been done mostly by the senior partner in the firm, with the listening by the one of his employees.  The employee knew better than to really engage the senior partner in any conversation, as the senior partner enjoyed hearing the sound of his own voice.  The employee was happy enough, for if he were to say anything, he might not have a job after that day.

The senior partner was going on about the recent rash of people leaving the firm.  The most recent departure was someone pretty high up in the organization, leaving a hole they would have to fill and quickly.  It was odd.  When there was a hole in the employee’s level, there wasn’t an urgency to fill that vacancy, and the work was distributed to others as a ‘cost savings measure’.

The senior partner continued.  “Why didn’t he just come in to speak with me about what was wrong.  Nobody seems to do that.  If they would just do that, we could work things out with them and we wouldn’t be facing this.”

The employee just nodded and continued to stare straight ahead, keeping his mouth shut.  He didn’t mention that this was the same firm where, if an employee asked for a raise, the senior partners would drag out every mistake they had ever done since the employee first walked in the door as justification to reject the raise.  This was the same firm where there were not automatic raises, even though their billing out rates continued to rise.  This was the same firm, which, as mentioned, would not replace workers when they left because, ‘well, we aren’t making enough money to do so’.

Unaware of this inner dialogue, the senior partner continued on what he considered a happier note.  They had won the contract for a few other projects, which the employee would be the main contact.  Looking at the employee, the senior partner said to him, “Let’s hope you don’t screw this one up like you did the last one”.

The ride continued in silence.

Managers and leaders are mirrors for their organization.  What attitudes, ideas, and opinions they generate are reflected back to them in the attitudes, ideas, and opinions of their employees.  If they generate fairness, insight, and professionalism, they will have this reflected back at them.  If they generate the opposite, that, too, will be reflected back to them.  It is the clueless manager who generates one set of values and expects a different one to be reflected in their organization.

If you are wondering why employees in your organization act a certain way, look to yourself first to see if this behavior is the one you are sending out to the staff.  If it is, and if you truly want your organization to work differently, then begin with the most difficult change of all — your attitude.  Turn that mirror on yourself and take a good, hard look at yourself.  You may be surprised at what you see.

Ain’t Nobody Sees the Sarah, No Way, No How!


The jokes were already floating around the office:

What’s the difference among Elvis, Bigfoot, and Sarah?  You occasionally get a sighting of Elvis and Bigfoot.

You know what is similar between Halley’s Comet returning to Earth and Sarah’s door being open?  They happen with the same frequency.

The jokes revealed a truth around the office.  Sarah, since ascending to the top spot in the department, seemed to have no time for the department that helped her get to that top spot.  Her door was always closed, she ‘worked from home’ as much as she could, and getting an appointment to see her had a difficulty rating above the Normandy invasion.   It was noticed she carved out time for things she deemed important, like a three-day retreat to a seminar in a resort town, in which she took her family.  Other things, like one on one meetings with her staff, or even regular staff meetings, were regularly cancelled and discarded, which indicated the things that Sarah seemed to deem unimportant in her new role.

Any communication came via e-mail, or updates from her administrative assistant.  If she came out of her office at all, she may give a small royal wave and a ‘hello’ to the folks on her staff as she rushed by.  Otherwise, people were escorted into her office, and seen leaving her office, and there were days where, if you didn’t see her walk into the office, you would never even know she was there.   It was ‘the bunker’, and she never seemed to leave it.  While most of the time her staff accepted it as a fact, there were other times when it was very frustrating.  They needed to speak with her on important matters to them.  However, since she determined that those things weren’t important, or that other things were more important than her staff’s needs, many of those things went unresolved.  However, if there was fallout in that matter because they could not get to her to make a decision, you can bet she would take them to task.  Even that, however, was usually by e-mail.

You’re busy.  Your staff gets it.  Your job is important.  There are a lot of things to do.  However, the thing is, you wanted this job, big manager.  You lobbied for it and you worked yourself hard to prove that you deserved it.   The thing also is, you also worked your staff very hard in order to get that job.  They were an integral part of you being in that chair.  Now that you have firmly planted your backside in it, don’t you think those same people whose hard work put you there should get part of your attention and appreciation?

When your door is always closed, or when a subordinate is told they can be ‘squeezed in’ to your schedule, or you cancel face to face meetings with the staff who support you, you are sending a very clear message about what you deem important and what…and who…you deem unimportant.  You can’t then expect to emerge from your cocoon for five minutes and expect your staff to think you are a wonderful leader.  Moreover, you shouldn’t be surprised if your staff has a much lower opinion of you.  You were the one who caused it, after all.

You are not a leader of a department;  you are a leader of people.  When you ignore that central fact, you lose your people.  It is not the paperwork that gets things done.  It is not the projects for your boss that keeps the business going.  It is not the calls with your fellow executives that make your department highly rated among your peers.  It is your people.  A good leader realizes that and cherishes them, no matter how high they climb on the corporate ladder.  A poor leader thinks only of themselves, neglecting the very same people who will make the leader look good.

Step out of your office. Open your door.  Pay attention to your people, and not only when something goes wrong.  It is a poor farmer who ignores their garden and is then surprised to see only weeds growing.

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

its_all_about_me_coffee_mugs-rf9c65774451e4b2789d0b385d9c4a7b8_x7jgr_8byvr_512The meeting with upper management has ended and Sarah and Marjorie were still basking in the glow.  The upper management had applauded…actually applauded…at the presentation that Marjorie had given on a new system the department was installing and how it would improve the effectiveness of the department.   As they walked down the hall, Marjorie was already thinking of how she was going to share this news, and her thanks, to everyone who had made this moment possible.  Her team, which had worked incredible hours to get the system implemented, the training group, who had instructed the clients on the use of the system, and helped with the presentation which just had won accolades, and everyone else who contributed to its success.

Sarah, Marjorie’s supervisor, was also effusive with her gratitude.  Well, maybe ‘effusive’ is a bit too strong a word.  She had not thanked any of Marjorie’s team, nor the training team, or the assistance with the presentation.  Sarah was saving her gratitude for Marjorie, which she promptly uttered to Marjorie as they were walking away from the meeting.  “Thank you for making me look so good”, she said to Marjorie, and kept on walking.

Let’s contrast the two approaches, shall we?  Marjorie, overjoyed all the hard work had paid off spectacularly, thought of who she needed to share this glory, and her appreciation with.  She also made sure to name those people to Sarah.  She realized she could not do this alone and was truly grateful for the team effort.  Marjorie realized doing this would cost her nothing but some time and kind words, and would add to a reservoir of good will with her team, so in case she needed to ever ask for the hard work again, she would have something to draw upon.

Sarah’s focus was squarely on Sarah.  She didn’t bother to personally thank anyone on the team for their work, although, by her own admission, they ‘made her look good’.  Her words of gratitude to Marjorie wasn’t for her hard work, her great management, or for the countless hours she put in.  It wasn’t even for her presentation skills.  No, the only words uttered by Sarah were to say that she deemed looking good in front of her peers to be more important than anything else.  It was a self-congratulations and nothing for the team.

Now, who do you think is the more respected manager and the one who will get the team to do the impossible for them?  The one who shared the victory or the one who kept it all for themselves?

When all you think of is yourself, then that is the only person you can depend upon to support you.

Manners Make the Manager




Sadie and Herb walked out of the vendor meeting wondering what just happened.  It was supposed to be a review with the vendor of the previous year and a discussion of how to improve the process for this year.  What they ended up with was an even greater pile of work.  Worse yet, the work was due to the ‘ideas’ that their department head, Ellen, had brought to the meeting and dumped at their feet without a look backward.

Ellen had never bothered to discuss with Sadie and Herb that this is part of what she wanted to discuss with the vendor.  She never had a pre-meeting debrief with them about what was on her agenda.  She wanted to be at the meeting; that was all they knew.  In short, she didn’t have the courtesy to let them know ahead of time so they could prepare.  It seems they were too unimportant for her to loop into the conversation.

Now, to be fair, Sadie and Herb knew Ellen always wanted to go further, push the envelope, and ‘keep things fresh’.  What she failed to realize was that, while keeping things fresh with new ideas and programs, she never removed anything from their already overburdened workload to make room for the new.  No, her staff was just supposed to find some time to do this, and do it well, or else Ellen would come down on them for doing sloppy work, and brook no excuses for it.

There was never the one question that they longed to hear from Ellen’s lips.  That question?  “Do you have enough capacity to handle these new items?”

Now, you may say that Sadie and Herb should be more proactive with Ellen and tell her that they simply can’t handle the work based on what they have.  The short answer is that they have.  Multiple times.  With a wave of her hand, Ellen has dismissed these comments with one statement.  “You can handle it.  You simply aren’t efficient enough.”  At times, she would deign to spend ten minutes with them, show them what they were doing wrong from her ‘expert analysis’, and breeze away, assured she had managed the situation well and that they now had the bandwidth to handle the burden.  In the wake of Hurricane Ellen, Sadie, Herb, and the rest of the department would be faced with picking up the wreckage that she had created.

Leadership means making your people more important than yourself.  It means creating an atmosphere where your people feel they can do great things.  It means hearing them when they say that are overburdened.  It means respecting them enough to have the conversation with them about your next steps, especially when it means they will have a greater workload.  Leadership means showing respect for the people who are going to make you look good day in and day out.

Leadership does not mean throwing work on them, being inconsiderate of their concerns, using trite phrases to dismiss them blithely, and then patting yourself on the back for being such a ‘good leader’.  If that is what you think a leader is, then enjoy the self-deception, for nobody you manage will think many good things about you or your style.

A good leader has the good sense and the good manners to know their people come first.  How are your manners?

Meditation, Dinners, and Celebrities

The original concept wasn’t a bad one at all.  Let’s get the leaders of the company together for a full day summit to discuss leadership practices and improvements.  Have them speak with one another, get ideas for the future, and give ideas to up and coming leaders of the company to take even larger roles.  This was a worthy expenditure of the company’s money.  From the participants’ perspectives, it also was a great success.

This also left the question of how do the organizers of the event do better for next time, as they had promised a next time to all the participants.  In figuring this out, things started to get out of hand.

The participants had indicated that they would like a little networking time before the meeting. While this could be built into the day, the organizers, a couple of whom were in the summit, suggested that there be a company-sponsored dinner the night before at the same venue that held the summit. This venue was not inexpensive, but hey, the leadership wanted networking time, so why not spend the company’s money on feeding them. It’s not like they had the money to contribute to this event if they wanted to go.

The participants also wanted to learn more about a topic mentioned in the first summit — guided meditation.  Apparently leadership is tough and the ability to have a few moments a day to just meditate might help the leaders.  This was reasonable.  Were books on the subject bought and distributed?  Were websites offered?  No, an ‘expert’ in guided meditation was hired to speak at the meeting.  After all, a lot had been spent on dinner. Why not a bit more?

To make this second meeting even more memorable, it was decided that a guest speaker was needed.  Not just a guest speaker, but a best-selling author.  A very expensive and demanding best-selling author.  And, of course, you couldn’t have the author without buying everyone at the summit his book.  That would simply be rude.

So, what had been a great and home-grown idea to improve the leadership of the company had now blown up into a ridiculously expensive and perk ladened meeting, all at the company’s expense.

Would company paid meditation be brought into for the average employees?  Probably not.  Would a networking event for average employees be instituted with free food offered?  Probably not.   Free books or speakers?  Nope.  Paid, yes, but not free.

As forward-looking as the summit was, once again some of the most basic lessons seem to lost.  Your employees want to see people who both understand them and can be at their level.  Free dinners, networking events, and expensive authors show that the leadership want to be treated differently and better, a fact not lost on your employees.  As employees are given meager raises and/or bonuses, thousands of company dollars are being spent on perks for a small percentage of the employees of the company.

It won’t matter what lessons are learned by the expensive author.  When leaders can’t grasp the simple fact that they won’t get the trust of their people until they show their people why they should have this trust, no amount of summit days will help.