Raising the level of your leadership




The Dreaded Performance Review


WaterCooler4x3BEFORE THE REVIEW

“Are you dreading your review?”

“Yes. At my old company all I ever heard was: “You are a 3 on a 5 point scale; you are meeting expectations and will get a 1.5% raise. I walked out not knowing why I was a 3, nor what I could do to get a higher score. Very frustrating.”

“Well…you may get a pleasant surprise today.”

“I hope so.”

AFTER THE REVEIW

“How did it go?”

“It was great. I wasn’t rated—I was reviewed, mostly by asking me questions. In effect, I reviewed myself by answering the questions. And it was easy because we talk about performance all the time. There were no surprises and no “gotcha’s” and I know what is expected of me in the future.”

“What about your raise?”

“He said that raises will be decided after everyone is reviewed and will be based on contribution to success, not on some scale decided by a consultant.”


Employees hate to be rated, but they don’t mind being evaluated as long as truth about performance—not satisfying a predetermined scale—is the intent.

Two keys to successful reviews:
#1 Review performance all year long; there should be no surprises.
#2 Review by asking questions that prompt the employee to evaluate their own performance.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Vision Is The Easy Part


Every Good Idea 2In 16 Stones, I concluded a review of the 1960’s moon-landing program with the following statement: “It wasn’t a Saturn rocket that launched Apollo 11, it was a vision.” President John Kennedy had cast the vision for “landing a man on the moon” on May 25, 1961. It was fulfilled eight years and fifty-six days later (July 20, 1969) when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the moon, announced by Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic statement, “The Eagle has landed.” Though President Kennedy deserves immense credit for casting the vision, the real story is what happened during the eight years and fifty-six days.

The cost of Neil Armstrong’s “…one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” was $24B and three lives—the entire crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a cabin fire during a 1967 pre-launch test. More than 400,000 people from 20,000 companies and universities were involved in the project. There were thousands of tests, changes and retests in the systems and flight vehicles. There were the six Mercury and twelve Gemini/Titan launches, plus six unmanned Apollo launches and four manned non-lunar Apollo launches, all before Apollo 11. It is truly said that every good idea is a lot of hard work for someone.

There are a lot more visions unfulfilled than fulfilled. Why? Poor execution. In their best selling 2002 book, Execution, Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan made it painfully clear:

“…unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they’re pointless.”

They go on to say:

“Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a…leader.
That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s the leader’s most important job.”

The leader’s most important job? Yes, and Warren Bennis agrees:

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

I love these quotes because as a non-visionary, I admit I’m more than a bit biased toward action. Without action, the “next big thing” soon becomes the “last abandoned thing.” So don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you may be great at casting vision, you are a great leader. Great leaders may or may not be good at casting vision. However, they will always be great at getting things done. Leaders are remembered for great accomplishment, not great dreams.

If your organization is floundering and you’ve cast vision until your vocal cords are worn out, it’s time to for you to focus on execution—“…the leader’s most important job.”

By the way, Execution should be on your required reading list if you are leader, think you are a leader, or want to be a leader.

If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.

[You can order 16 Stones at hard-lessons.com.]

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Wind In Your Sails


SeaHawkThe 1940 film, The Sea Hawk, starred Errol Flynn as an English pirate (Capt. Thorpe—the good guy) who was a “thorn in the side” (understatement) of the we’ll-conquer-the-world Spanish (the bad guys).

Early in the movie, a calm, no-wind day has a Spanish galleon laboring slowly along using captured English sailors pulling at the oars. Capt. Thorpe arrives with his ship the Sea Hawk, but miraculously, the Sea Hawk has wind. He could steer, maneuver, attack, and come-along-side while the Spanish ship is helpless with no wind. By the way, his cannoneers were deadly accurate; the Spanish cannoneers couldn’t hit the broad side of a ship. Guess who won the encounter?

Does it feel like your organization is laboring at the oars instead of sailing in the wind? You can catch the wind if you…
• Have a captain who knows how to navigate the ship. That’s you if you are the leader.
• Have great “first mate.” As organizations grow, the leader needs help.
• Have a well maintained, sea worthy vessel. Your products, vision, strategy, etc., all need to fit the sea state you are sailing in (stormy or calm).
• Have a well-trained, motivated crew who know their stuff and are ready to engage the challenge.
• Have a clear and compelling purpose (save England and the queen, and free the slaves) that inspires everyone.
• Have a bias for action (play offense).
• Have courage and perseverance; don’t run or waiver at the first sign of trouble.

You can learn a lot about life and leadership by watching 1940 movies including how to lead with the wind in your sails. (By the way, guess who got the beautiful girl: Capt. Thorpe or the Spanish captain?)

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Don’t Make Heros Out Of Arsonists


HeroDoes your organization make heroes out of arsonists? Probably. Most do. In my experience, it usually happens something like this:

Tuesday afternoon—telephone in the Operations VP office—ring….ring…ring!

Operations VP:     “I’m busy. What do you want?”

Assembly Manager:     “If we don’t get Part # 427bgf109942A by next Monday morning, we are going to have to shut down the assembly line.”

Operations VP:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! do you mean! We can’t shut down an assembly line. That will cost us thousands.”

Assembly Manager:     “We will run out of workarounds on Friday. So I have to have it by first thing Monday morning.”

Operations VP:     “What happened?”

Assembly Manager:    “Fabrication was expediting the part for us, but it got scrapped out in machining and they don’t have any more material to make another one.”

Operations VP call to the Fabrication Manager:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! is going on down there? You guys are about to shut down assembly because they don’t have Part # 427bgf109942A because you guys scrapped it.”

Fabrication Manager:     “We got the material late and had to rush it. My best machinist, Williams, was at the dentist, so I put Jones on it. He set it up wrong and the finished part was out of tolerance. If we had got the material on time, Williams could have made the part and we would have had it to assembly yesterday.”

Operations VP:     “When will you get more material?”

Fabrication Manager:     “Not until Friday. We’ll work overtime all weekend to have the part by Monday morning. I’ll be in here personally to make sure it happens. And Williams has agreed to come in to make the part.”

Operations VP call to the Purchasing Manager:     “Why was the #@**><*!@^%!! material for Part # 427bgf109942A late and why can’t you get more here before Friday?”

Purchasing Manager:     “We got the purchase request from Production Control late. We have a special order at the vendors, but the material—it’s a casting—won’t be ready until late Thursday.”

Operations VP:     “Late #@**><*!@^%!! Thursday! There is no way you’ll have it here by Friday, even with an express truck run.”

Purchasing Manager:     “Yeah, I know a truck isn’t fast enough, so we have chartered a plane to fly it in. It should land at the airport by 6:00am Friday.”

Operations VP:     “A #@**><*!@^%!! charter! How much did that cost?”

Purchasing Manager:     “$12,000”

Operations VP:     “It’s coming out of your budget.”

Purchasing Manager:     “It’s Production Control’s fault. They should pay for it.”

Operations VP call to the Production Control Manager:     “Why can’t you guys get the #@**><*!@^%!! purchase requests down to Purchasing on time? We may have to shut down an assembly line on Monday because we don’t have Part # 427bgf109942A. And we don’t have it because we had to use Jones instead of Williams to do the machining because the casting was late, and the casting was late because the stupid purchase request was late getting to purchasing.”

Production Control Manager:    “Sorry, boss. But the Program Manager didn’t release the production schedule on time so we were behind the eight ball from the get-go.”

Operations VP call to the Program Manager:   “For crying out loud. Are you guys too busy going out for drinks with customers to release the production schedules on time?”

Program Manager:     “Not our fault, boss. The computer was down 4 days for reprogramming. We have really been scrambling trying to catch up.”

Operations VP call to the IT Manager:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! is going on down there? We have a crisis in the shop because you guys shut the computer down for four stupid days!

IT Manager:     “You must have forgotten. That new software you ordered us to install turned out to be a disaster. It took us four days to get it debugged. Even now I’m not sure it’s working right.”

Operations VP:     “#@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!!”

Fast forward to the next Monday morning operations meeting:

Assembly Manager:     “We got Part # 427bgf109942A at 4:30am this morning. We’ll have it installed by noon and be back on schedule by tomorrow morning.”

Fabrication Manager:     “My guys did a great job this weekend. I was here all Saturday night with Williams to make sure we set up the machining correctly and carried the part to heat treat myself.”

Purchasing Manager:     “The vendor really came through for us. The buyer was there Thursday to carry the part to the chartered plane and flew back with it. It was a Citation V. Did you guys know they serve free drinks on those things?”

Operations VP:     “I am really proud of you guys. You saved the day for us. I’ll make sure the corner office hears about this. He’ll want to personally thank you, maybe even take you to lunch.”

End of story.

This is a classic case of making heroes out of fire fighters for putting out a fire they started themselves—heroes out of arsonists.

Don’t fall into this trap. There are people in your organization who prevent fires, or put out fires other people start. They seldom get attention in meetings because they aren’t often in crisis mode. Take a few minutes today to seek them out and thank them. Maybe even take them to lunch. They are the real heroes.

[If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.]

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Where Does The Buck Stop?


Truman_pass-the-buckHarry Truman was famous for his The Buck Stops Here sign on his desk. Sadly, there aren’t many Harry-Truman-like leaders in today’s world.

The CEO of Volkswagen wasn’t—he claimed he didn’t know about the emission test cheating.

The CEO of Pilot isn’t—he claims he isn’t responsible for cheating customers out of their earned rebates. (I guess he takes no responsibility for the culture that permitted it.)

The CEO of Wells Fargo wasn’t—when false accounts were set up without customer knowledge or approval, he loudly testified: “That isn’t the Wells Fargo way of doing business!” (Really? Thousands of employees thought it was.)

A well-known basketball coach claimed he had no idea prostitutes were being used in his recruiting program.

Easy to get discouraged isn’t it?

But all is not lost. Among the hundreds (thousands?) of “I’m not responsible” cries out there, comes one “…ultimately that’s my responsibility” admission from Jason Fried the CEO of Basecamp (project/communication software).

How did he put his words into action? “This year I’ve decided to take Harry Truman’s famous The BUCK STOPS Here sign literally. So in 2017, all refunds requested by Basecamp customers will come out of my paycheck….” In other words, “I’m responsible so I’ll take the hit.” (Most of the others retired with #100M+ packages and are living happily ever after.)

Capitalism is under attack. Why? Because too many leaders claim “I’m not responsible….”

Have you noticed that politicians spend most of their time blaming the other party—or the media—telling the voters “I’m not responsible….”

Then…shaming them all…comes a Harry-Truman-like leader named Jason who says “…ultimately that’s my responsibility. The buck stops with me. I’m not going to pass it down.”

If you are a leader at any level, get a The BUCK STOPS Here sign, put it on your desk, then lead that way—quit passing the buck.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Make A Difference


MLK Jr Wash DCThe post offices are closed today—I’m glad. The government offices are closed today—I’m glad. The schools are closed today—I’m glad. I’m glad because it means I get to spend the day with my three grandson buddies, and I’m glad because the day honors Martin Luther King, Jr.

The turbulent 60’s were high school and college years for me. I remember the marches. I remember the cross burnings and lynchings. I remember sit-ins, Rosa Parks and water cannons. I remember Selma, Birmingham and Medgar Evers. I remember working with black laborers who were paid only $1.25 per hour to dig sewer ditches. And, I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great leaders of the 20th century. If I were an African-American, I would probably say he was the greatest leader of the 20th century.

When we celebrate July 4th, blacks join in, but they remember they were still slaves in 1776. When we celebrate Washington’s birthday, blacks join in, but they remember that he owned slaves. To African Americans, it is Lincoln and MLK, Jr., who led the fight, first for freedom, and then for equality. These two stand alone in black history; there are no rivals to their legacy. They both led with:

  • Purpose
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Resolve
  • Selflessness

The lives of millions were impacted for good by their leadership. Both died young, brought down by an assassin’s bullet. They believed that…

“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of us will not have the opportunity to impact millions by our leadership. However, all of us can impact a few, some hundreds, and some thousands. Whatever the size of your sphere of influence, if you want to make a difference, you will have to lead with purpose, courage, vision, resolve and selflessness. Do that and you will leave footprints that endure long after you are gone. Isn’t that what is really important?

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Boss Is A Four-Letter Word


Boss Sign“Dick, they hate you.”

“Who hates me?”

“The people who work for you hate you.”

That was a tough day. Someone decided to tell me the truth about how I was doing in my first position as a boss. It was the day I learned that boss is a four-letter word. It was the day that I learned that controlling is not leading. It was the day I learned that leadership is a job, not a position. It was the day I began to transition from “me” to “we.” It was one of the hardest days of my life, but one of the most important.

Have you had a day like that? Do you know if you are a boss or a leader?

If “authority” is a word you use a lot—you’re a boss.

If you believe people work for you, not the organization—you’re a boss.

If you control and approve every action and decision—you’re a boss.

If you believe you have all the answers—you’re a boss.

If you love policies and rules rather than principles and values—you’re a boss.

If those same policies and rules don’t apply to you—you’re a boss.

If the best and brightest don’t stay long—you’re a boss.

If everything comes to a standstill when you’re gone—you’re a boss.

If you use budgets as a hammer—you’re a boss.

Don’t trust yourself to answer these questions objectively. Ask someone. If you are as fortunate as I was, they will tell you the truth about yourself. It may hurt, but you need to know because, “Boss is a four-letter word.”

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Act Like It’s Already 2017


Dec2016There are 16 days left in 2016; about 10-12 are workdays for most people. The truth is, what you do these last days of 2016 will have a huge impact on how you start 2017. So start 2017 with a clean slate, not bogged down with 2016 carryovers.

#1 Do Five Things You Have Been Putting Off For Weeks There’s a “call back” note on your desk…a garage to clean…a report to write…a visit to the doctor…you know what it is. Don’t let it continue to nag you in 2017.

#2 Spend Time With The Water Boys In Your Organization The water boy goes about his job in anonymity. She cleans the office at night or he opens up the church early on Sunday mornings. Take 15 minutes to sit down and talk. Learn about his hobby and her kids. Listen for that hidden message from the heart. Say “thank you.” It will be a great finish to the water boy’s year…and yours.

#3 Forgive Someone There’s a co-worker, family member, neighbor, or ___?___ you need to forgive—for your sake not theirs.

From the mega-best seller, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand:

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.”

When we don’t forgive, we become a victim twice. First, when we are hurt, and second, when we chain ourselves to the pain. Bitterness and a desire for revenge are heavier weights than the original hurt; carrying them will wear you out emotionally. It’s not easy, but 2017 will be a much better year if you let go.

#4 Clean Out Your Inbox My inbox has 17 items this morning; my goal is zero on 12/31. Zero may seem an impossibility to you, so how about 10? Or 20? Don’t come in on January 2nd with a long list of 2016 carryover emails—get rid of them!

#5 Plan Your First Day Of 2017 How you start 2017 will have a big impact on how you finish 2017. So hit the ground running on Day One. Before you turn out the lights on your last 2016 workday, make a list of five things to do first on the morning of January 2 (or whatever your first workday is). Limit your “holiday small talk” to an hour or so, then pull out your list and get to it. Go home Day One with five ✓ marks instead of “I’m already behind.”

You’ll be glad you did.

If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.

© Copyright 2016 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Coach ’em Up


grunge-football-diagramWith only three returning starters, and sophomores playing leading roles, they started 1-5…and some of those losses were really bad. Most teams would have given up and started thinking about next year. They didn’t.

The season was more than half over when they went on 6-1 run which put them in the final four for the state championship. During the 6-1 streak, they beat two teams they had lost to earlier. They lost in the final minutes to an 11-2 team on its home field. What a turn-around!

This story is more about the coach—the leader—than the players. Turnarounds are always about the leader. Teams, churches, businesses, schools, or nations don’t just turnaround on their own—someone leads them. If you are a leader in your organization, it’s your job. And it’s your job today! Don’t fall into the trap of “if I just had better players….” Yes, get better players, but don’t wait for that, make the players you have now better—coach ‘em up.

Some thoughts about coach ‘em up:

  • If you give up, so will your team.
  • Telling them to try harder—work harder—is not coaching ‘em up.
  • Hope is fueled by progress. Look for and celebrate progress, no matter how small.
  • Fun and foxholes are what pull teams together. Find a way to have fun when you are in a 1-5 foxhole.
  • If you don’t change the way you coach, don’t expect them to change the way they play…or work.

Is your organization in a 1-5 slump? Maybe you do need some better players, but in the meantime, coach up the ones you have. That’s what leaders do!

And if you can’t do it, the only solution is to coach yourself up or get a better leader.

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© Copyright 2016 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Be A Coffee Bean


coffeeIf leadership was easy, anyone could do it. The climate leaders operate in is always changing: sunny one day, stormy the next. All leaders inevitably face hot water—even boiling water. A major customer cancels THE order you need to make this year’s numbers. Three months before you are going to introduce a new and exciting, market-making widget, Apple hits the market with its iWidget. Batteries in cell phones catch on fire or an earthquake shuts off your supply line for six months. A popular staff member leaves and church attendance drops 20% or a popular chef leaves and reservations drop by 20%. (You get the idea.)

In these “boiling hot” times, you get to choose whether you are a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean.

Boiling water changes the carrots. They wilt, turn soft, and end up at the bottom of the stew pot.

Boiling water changes the eggs. The shell looks the same, but inside they are entirely different—hard, even tough, and they get chopped up so they don’t even look like eggs anymore.

Boiling water changes the…opps, I started to say coffee beans. But actually, coffee beans change the boiling water—it becomes coffee—aromatic, strong, flavorful, better. You can’t drink boiling water, but coffee is great.

Whatever climate you are operating in, be a coffee bean, change the climate instead of letting the climate change you. If you don’t know—get help. If you don’t, you’ll end up at the bottom of the stew pot. And you know what happens to stew when there is nothing left but over-cooked carrots.

This post was inspired by a story in Gullible’s Travel by Topper Long. Thanks, Topper.

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© Copyright 2016 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.


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  • On Leading Well…

    "Don't wish it were easier, wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom."

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