What Great Leaders Know and Do
By Ken Blanchard, Mark Miller
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Blanchard Family Partnership and Mark Miller
All rights reserved.
How can leadership be this hard? One year ago today was the happiest day of my life. I had arrived! Only four years out of college, and my company had moved me into a leadership position: director of corporate client services for the southeast sales region. I knew I could handle the job, because I'd started from our catalog call center, fielding customer requests and complaints. Then I was promoted to a project manager, working closely with sales and our corporate clients. Whatever the salespeople promised our customers, I delivered. And if I do say so myself, I was good at getting our corporate clients what they needed, when and where they needed it. I got all kinds of kudos for developing outstanding relationships with clients. I was sure I could make my staff do the same.
A year ago, I was on top of the world. Today, I'm holding on for dear life and might lose my job. What happened? What went wrong?
With those thoughts, Debbie Brewster pulled into the parking lot at the public library. She knew she could never have an uninterrupted day in the office. Besides, her boss had always encouraged her to take some time every month to step back and Assess what had happened, Affirm what was working, and make Adjustments as needed. She had always been too busy to actually try it, but today was different. Drastic times demand drastic measures.
As Debbie entered the library, her mind flashed back to long-forgotten memories from her less-than-stellar educational career. The musty smell of the old volumes was as strong as ever. The lighting was about the same—a bit too dark. That had never made much sense to her. Why aren't libraries better lit?
Debbie approached the librarian and said, "Hi, I'm looking for a place to work. Somewhere with ample light, if that's possible."
"Certainly," the woman said with a smile. "Are there any particular resources you'll need today?"
"No, but thanks anyway. I just need a quiet place to work for a few hours. I have a few business issues that I need to resolve."
"Let me know if you need any help," the librarian offered. She escorted Debbie to a table in a quiet corner with two large windows on each side.
Debbie took a seat, pulled out her laptop and began. First, I need to get a firm grip on my current situation. Then I'll try to determine how I got into this mess.
Worst among all
salespeople 7 sales regions
Worst among all
satisfaction 7 sales regions
Profit contribution Below goal
satisfaction where it was when
I took over the team.
I've lost 4 out of 10 team
members in less than
a year. This feels like
Okay, that's where we are today. How did things get so bad, so fast? She thought back over the previous twelve months. Which events might have contributed to her team's current lackluster performance?
I am appointed as team leader.
First team meeting; conflict
over changes I wanted the team
Selected Bob—new to the
Cut expenses to improve
Two new hires: Brenda—good
fit; Charles—wait and see.
Lost one important client due
to poor service from our people.
Bob terminated. Team seems
Year-end results reflect
significant drop in team
performance versus previous
Performance reviews with each
member of the team. Every
team member is challenged to
"step up or step out."
Lost two more clients—same
reason as before.
Team meetings canceled until
further notice. Focus on
Wow! No wonder it was a bad year. Look at all the stuff that happened. Unfortunately, I don't think "stuff just happened" is the insight I need to turn things around.
Debbie's somber thought was interrupted by the librarian. "How's your work going? Getting everything done?"
"Not exactly. I've reviewed the current situation, but I don't know where to go from here," Debbie admitted.
"Maybe I can help," the librarian said.
Debbie was amused by the comment but tried not to show it. "Well, thank you, but I'm not sure you could. It's a complex problem."
"Oh, I didn't mean that I could personally help you solve your problem," the woman responded patiently. "However, we do have quite a few resources about business at our disposal. What is the problem you're trying to solve?"
"In our company, we often refer to problems as opportunities," Debbie explained.
"Okay, what's the opportunity?" the woman said with a smile as she continued to probe.
"I think I could sum it up by saying that I have an opportunity to improve the performance of my team."
"Do you know what's causing the performance issues?"
Debbie paused. "I'm not sure. I listed all the key events from the last year and several things that could have contributed, but—"
"But what?" the woman asked.
"I get this sinking feeling that I may be a significant part of the problem. I've only been the team leader for about a year, and I have no prior training or experience." Debbie thought, I can't believe I'm baring my soul to the librarian.
"We've got quite a few resources on leadership development," the librarian offered.
"Leadership development," Debbie repeated.
"Yes," said the librarian, "you said you might be part of the problem."
"I think I said I might be a contributing factor, but the real issue is performance." Debbie could feel herself getting defensive. It was one thing to admit she might be part of the problem. It had a different ring to it when she heard someone else say it.
The librarian stepped back. "Okay, I'll leave you alone to work on it yourself."
As the woman walked away, Debbie reconsidered. Maybe there are some new leadership tricks I can learn. What could she lose at this point? Only her job and her dream. "Wait!" she called out. "I'm sorry. I was a bit defensive. I've been under a lot of pressure."
The woman turned back with an understanding smile. "It's okay."
"Where are those resources that you mentioned?" Debbie asked, relieved that the librarian was still willing to help.
"Follow me." The librarian led Debbie to a nearby computer, and together they scrolled through the listings, which included titles such as these:
The Power of 360-Degree Feedback
Development Plans That Work
Leaders Mentoring Leaders
What Do Leaders Do?
Debbie began to see something as they scrolled from screen to screen. The word mentoring was repeated several times; in fact, it was repeated on almost every screen she viewed. Then it hit her!
"Excuse me," she said.
She went back to her laptop and opened her e-mail. She was sure she had seen a message that had something to do with mentoring. It read:
Send to: All Supervisors and Managers
From: Melissa Arnold
Subject: Mentoring Opportunities
Date: May 23
As outlined in our annual plan, we indicated that assisting the current and next generation of leaders would be one of our top priorities for this year and for years to come. We believe that one way we can assist our emerging leaders is to establish a formal mentoring program within the organization. We want to be very clear that this program is optional. Any of you who wish to participate need to submit an application to me before June 1.
If you would like additional information about the program, there will be a "Lunch and Learn" on Friday, May 28, in the fourth floor conference room from 12:15 until 1 P.M. Bring your own lunch.
This could be the ticket, Debbie thought. Tm sure a mentor from within the company would help solve the issues in my area. My mentor will probably be able to diagnose the problem and tell me how to fix it in a meeting or two. Besides, it might even look good in my personnel file to say that I was mentored by an executive.
An alarm went off in Debbie's mind: Today is the 28th! I've missed the informational meeting. But if I leave now, I can go by the office and pick up one of those applications, fill it out this weekend, and submit it Monday morning before the deadline.
Debbie gathered her things and headed for the library exit. "Thanks for your help," she called to the librarian on her way out.
"Any time," the woman replied with a smile. "Good luck!"
The following Saturday, Debbie's husband, John, invited her to play tennis with friends, but she bowed out so that she could work on the mentorship application.
"Thanks for the invite, honey, but I don't want to miss the Monday deadline on this paperwork," she said. The application contained all the usual demographic questions but didn't stop there. There were quite a few personal questions and several unexpectedly challenging ones about why she wanted to be in the program. The final question was the one that made her really stop and think.
What is a leader?
Debbie suspected that a good answer to this simple, straightforward question would help her get into the program. She worked for quite some time trying to articulate her reply. She felt she should know the answer because being a leader had long been her primary career objective. Yet she had never given the meaning of leadership much thought. Her first few attempts were, by her own standards, awkward or simplistic:
A leader is the person in charge.
A leader is the person in the position that others report to.
A leader is a person who makes things happen.
Although Debbie believed there was truth in each of these, she was not satisfied. She had an uneasy feeling that there was a correct answer, but she didn't have a clue what it was. It was the same feeling she'd had when it first occurred to her that she might actually be part of her team's performance problems.
Nonetheless, it was getting late, and the application needed to be submitted the next morning. Still uncertain, she finally wrote these words:
A leader is a person in a position of authority who is responsible for the results of those under his or her direction.
* * *
Early Monday morning, Debbie headed straight to Human Resources with her application in hand. She was surprised but pleased to be greeted by the department director, Melissa Arnold.
"Hi, I'm Debbie Brewster, the director of corporate client services from the southeast sales region," she said, extending a hand.
"Yes, Debbie. It's good to see you again," Melissa replied as she shook her hand. "I believe we met at the company picnic a couple of years ago. Do you and your husband still play golf?"
Debbie was amazed. She didn't even remember the picnic from two years ago, let alone meeting Melissa there. How ... no, why did she remember me or that John and I play golf? I don't even know what my team members do when they're not at work, much less remember their spouses' interests.
"You've got a good memory! Yes, we do still play, although not as much as we used to before I became a team leader. It seems as though I don't have as much time these days."
"What brings you to Human Resources so early on a Monday morning?" Melissa asked.
"I want to submit my application for the mentoring program," Debbie explained.
"Great! Any particular area you're needing help with?"
"No, I just think that at this point in my career, I could use a fresh set of eyes to look at my team's performance."
Melissa frowned. "Our program is not set up as a consulting arrangement. Its focus is more on the individual leader and your development. Maybe you need someone from our internal consulting division—"
"No," Debbie interrupted. "I guess I could have stated it better. I need some help. My first year in leadership has been much more difficult than I thought it would be. I think a mentor could help."
"Okay, we'll process your application and see if we can find a good fit. You'll get an e-mail in two weeks advising you whether you have been selected to participate in this phase of the program. If you're in, we'll let you know who your mentor will be."
Debbie felt hopeful. "Sounds great. Thank you for your time."
"My pleasure. I'm here to serve. Let me know if I can help in the future."
How odd that she would say her role is to serve, Debbie thought as she left. For goodness sakes, she's the head of Human Resources. Someone had better tell her that her role is to lead.
When Debbie got back to her office, she was immediately reminded of why she needed a mentor. She felt like a firefighter, running from one burning house to another. She knew she should probably be the fire chief calling out orders for her staff to execute, but she realized time and time again that she was the one fighting the fires. Often, her staff would simply bring her the burning issue and step back and let her take care of it. This was the reason why she had less time to play golf. She did her staff's work during the day, and she did her own work on nights and weekends. It was clearly not a sustainable life.
The next two weeks passed in a blur as Debbie waited for word about the mentoring program. The actual situations changed, but it seemed her role never varied. The work—or the way she was going about it—was killing her. When she got home one night, exhausted and frustrated, John made a comment.
"Something's wrong. What is it?" he asked.
Debbie sighed. "I'm just beginning to wonder if I've pursued the wrong dream. Maybe leadership isn't for me."
"You're getting that mentor pretty soon, right?" Her husband put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"I hope so," Debbie replied. Deep inside, she knew that her future would depend on it.
* * *
On the morning she expected word about the mentoring program, Debbie checked her e-mail. No message. She braced for a long, anxious day waiting for the message. But soon she was so involved in solving other people's problems that she had no time to worry about the much-anticipated e-mail.
At lunchtime, Brenda, one of her team members, approached Debbie in the coffee room.
"Can I talk to you about a personal issue?" Brenda asked.
Debbie had noticed that Brenda's performance had slipped somewhat in recent weeks, but she had not taken the time to find out why. She certainly didn't have time now to talk about personal matters.
"I'm sorry, Brenda, maybe later. I'm busy right now." It never crossed Debbie's mind that Brenda's performance and her personal problem could be related. Debbie went into her office and closed the door. As she scanned her new messages, she spotted an e-mail from Melissa. She opened it and read:
Send to: Debbie Brewster
From: Melissa Arnold
Subject: Mentoring Program
Date: June 14
I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in Phase I of our new Mentoring Program. Your mentor will be Jeff Brown. Someone from Jeff's office will contact you to schedule your first meeting. If you have questions, please let me know.
Debbie thought her heart had stopped. Surely there must be a mistake. Jeff Brown is the president of the company! There is no way he could be my mentor.
She picked up the phone and placed a call to Melissa Arnold's office. Melissa's assistant answered the phone.
"This is Todd. How may I serve you?"
"I'm calling for Melissa Arnold. Is she in?"
"No, I'm sorry, she's at lunch right now. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, really," Debbie answered. "I've just been accepted in the new mentoring program, and there's been a mistake regarding my mentor."
"Let me check that for you. What is your name?"
"Debbie Brewster." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Secret by Ken Blanchard, Mark Miller. Copyright © 2014 Blanchard Family Partnership and Mark Miller. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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