Engage Grief at Work

Kerzenlicht

July 21, 2015. I was leading a team meeting when my phone rang. It was my husband, so I picked up and told him I was in the middle of a meeting and asked if I could call him back. “No,” he said, “You’re going to need to step out. I have some bad news to tell you.” He told me that my dad had just passed away. In that moment I had to recompose myself, tell my team that I was leaving, and begin my journey of navigating the logistical, legal, and emotional process of losing a loved one. You suddenly find yourself a member of The Club No One Wants to Belong To, and wishing that you could go back and be more supportive and understanding of those who joined this club before you. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant capture so many lessons learned in their book Option B. Here are a few lessons we can deploy at work to help employees who are grieving, that also improve engagement for the full team: acknowledge the elephant, build confidence, and be flexible.

Acknowledge the elephant. Western society doesn’t have norms on how to deal with grief. “How are you?” may be a polite greeting, but it isn’t a helpful one. As Sandberg says in her book, “I wanted to scream my husband just died, how do you think think I am? I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” We worry so much about saying something awkward or reminding our coworker about their loved one that we err on saying nothing. A good opener can be, ” I am so sorry to hear about your loss. I want you to know you don’t have to go through this grief alone. We are here for you.” Give the person the opportunity to talk about their loved one. After my dad passed, a coworker commented, “Your dad must have been a great guy. There were so many loving stories of him at his service. I’d love to hear more about his time in the Peace Corp if you’re up to talking about it sometime.” Showing a sincere, specific interest and giving the person the choice of how and when to talk about it builds gratitude and engagement. Inviting the elephant into the room allows the person to be authentic, and builds a trusting environment for the entire team.

Build Confidence. Losing a loved one shakes you to your core. You lose your center and have to rebuild.  When people return to work, it is important to help them find their new normal in the office. Before he/she returns, ask the grieving person how they would like their first day to go. Share with them what is on the team agenda and invite them to attend any and all meetings they feel up to. We are trying to be helpful when we say things like, “I’m sure you’re not up to taking on this project yet so I gave it to Mary.” Or, “I know you have a lot on your mind so you don’t have to come to the sales meeting.” What that can sound like to the grieving person is, “You clearly don’t have it together, so I don’t want to give you something you will screw up.” Find a project that uses the person’s skills to help accelerate his/her path to productivity.  Let him/her get some quick wins and show your appreciation. This same grace should be given to our high potentials in stretch assignments and our new hires/transfers joining the team. Showing that we are confident in people’s talent gives them the confidence to climb the learning curve and engages their hearts and minds at work.

Be Flexible. Business marches to a quarterly drum that seeks order and deadlines. But there is no one experience or timeline for grief. A key part of helping the grieving person re-acclimate at work  is setting an initial plan, then adjusting it regularly. When one of my employees had a stillborn, we talked about how she wanted to return to work. There were days when it was important for her to be at work, and there were times where working at home to crunch out some reports was the right thing to do. She knew I trusted her and I knew that offering increased flexibility allowed me to retain a valuable employee. We also revisited her workload on a regular basis. The team worked together to temporarily reorganize our work to help our friend have a successful re-entry while ensuring our commitments were met. Outcomes based goals are meaningful and motivating for everyone on the team, and help the team ensure the most important things get done. It also gives the grieving person the flexibility he/she needs to re-acclimate to the workplace.

Anna Quindlen wrote,”Grief is a whisper in the world and a clamor within.” We all have something clamoring within, that appears only as a whisper to others. Engage your team by acknowledging elephants, building confidence, and offering flexibility. This also creates a safe place for grief to reside and allows grieving employees to thrive.

Champion Experienced Talent

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This year’s Wimbledon was notable – Roger Federer won his eighth singles championship and, at age 36, is the oldest man to do so. Venus Williams was the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova to reach a Wimbledon singles final at age 37. In sports and work we often focus on our up and comers – which to be sure are a critical part of our talent pipeline. But what is our strategy to keep our most experienced talent engaged and winning? These employees hold our tribal knowledge and legacy resources, but instead of drawing them into our inner circle, we often assume they are on their way out to pasture. To get the most out of our most experienced employees we should take some lessons from our Wimbledon stars – go big and go home, draw on and redraw experience, and grow your grit.

Go big and go home. Federer is featured in an ESPN article, titled Once More with Feeling. The critics have been questioning his ability to stay competitive and overcome his injuries, suggesting it may be time for him to retire. It is true that he has been nagged by injuries – including tearing his meniscus in 2016 while bathing his children in Melbourne, which required surgery. Federer could have seen this as a sign it was time to hang it up. Instead, he changed his approach to training. He focuses on how he can save energy, picking and choosing key tournaments. He also embraces his time off, realizing that time off the court is a key part of allowing him to succeed. “I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process,” he says. “If I do show up and play, I love it. When I’m in training, I enjoy being in training. When I’m not in training, if I’m on vacation, I can enjoy that. I’m not in a rush. So I can take a step back and just actually enjoy.” As leaders it is important for us to encourage and celebrate this kind of balance for our experienced talent. Imagine that instead of lamenting “Mary”s” inability to travel as much anymore, we sent her to our most critical engagements, and had her spend more time in the office training and mentoring the team? What if we partnered with “Dave” on a phased retirement plan, allowing him to work for us part time so we can preserve his knowledge? Expecting results and respecting personal time are not ideas in conflict – in fact they are both essential ingredients in retaining our most experienced employees.

Draw on and redraw experience. Federer’s reputation is that it all comes easy. He is seen as the standard of perfect tennis by many, and it is this perfection that draws in many of his fans. But even Roger Federer experiences doubts and negative self talk. In the 2017 Australian Open he was down and getting down on himself. But then he said he reset his mindset, “not thinking too much about the what-ifs … the pressure, the moment. I know it’s huge, we all know it’s huge, but just try to shake it off. Don’t freeze up. Fight, but don’t try too hard and want it too much.” He went on to win the game, and in his opinion, have one of the best matches of his life. In moments of great stress, our most experienced talent has the frame of reference to draw on what has worked before and the confidence to redraw the final chapter. As leaders we need to learn how to tap into this combination to fuel the team. Is your Lean project team feeling stuck? Invite your most senior salesperson to share her customer knowledge and help shape the final design. Struggling with your new marketing campaign? Ask some of your tenured technical experts what feels authentic to your brand, and where you are coming off wanting it too much. Encouraging our experts to share their experience and thoughts with us can drive both engagement and innovation.

Grow your grit. Venus Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Williams holds fourteen Grand Slam doubles titles and two mixed doubles titles, five Wimbledon singles titles, and at this year’s Wimbledon, extended her record as the all-time leader, male or female, in Grand Slams played, with at total of 75. She has won four Olympic gold medals, and has 49 singles titles, second among active players on the WTA Tour. She is second to sister Serena Williams, who has been her most challenging rival. Williams has demonstrated incredible grit on the court – including several comebacks after injuries and being diagnosed with Sjögrens Syndrome. She has also shown grit off the court, facing criticism for her physical looks and play and for her outspoken style. She fought for – and won – equal pay for female athletes at Wimbledon, and she was cited as  “the single factor” that “changed the minds of the boys” and a leader whose “willingness to take a public stand separates her not only from most of her female peers, but also from our most celebrated male athletes.” Honoring the grit of our experienced talent is key to showing our employees what we really value. Consider creating a Grit Award in your organization, highlighting the finance leader who helped you successfully navigate multiple mergers and have him share his lessons learned.  Expand – or start – Lean In Circles in your organization and have experienced women share their war scars and wisdom with other women – and men – in your company. 

“Champions keep playing until they get it right.”- Billie Jean King.

On the court and in your building are champions who have been working hard to perfect their game over the years. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge, connections, and resources that can help you serve up an ace if you tap into them to help you go big and go home, draw on and redraw experience, and grow your grit.

 

 

 

 

Leadership Lessons from Princess Bride

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“Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”- Dread Pirate Roberts.

It is the 30th anniversary of the cinematic classic, The Princess Bride, this year.  This fairy tale adventure centers around Princess Buttercup and the hero, Westley, who is on a quest to find and save her. It is also a story that unfolds as the grandfather reads the Princess Bride book to his grandson, while the boy recovers from his illness. There are so many great quotes and moments in this movie. There are also a lot of good, timeless leadership lessons embedded in this tale, including some gems from Prince Humperdink, Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, Westley, and the Grandfather.

Prince Humperdinck:  Prince Humperdinck has a leadership title but does not focus on or rally supporters. He is totally self-absorbed and pursues Princess Buttercup not for love, but for power. There is a scene where Westley was captured and Humperdinck is asked if he wants to come to the dungeon. The Prince responds, “You know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.” Ever worked for this guy? The outtake: Titles don’t make leaders, character does.

Vizzini: Vizzini is the movie’s villian, hired to kidnap and kill Princess Buttercup. He plans elaborate schemes to trick others and to try to get his way. He is convinced that he is the smartest person in the room and that no one else can be trusted, so talks down to everyone he encounters. It is “inconceivable” to him that anyone else could outwit him. In an exchange with the Man in Black he states, “I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains…Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? (They are) morons.” His ego prevents him from connecting to others and ultimately, in an elaborate game of slight of hand costs him his life. The outtake: Leaders need brains, and they also need humility.

Inigo Montoya: Inigo Montoya joins our hero on his quest, not to save Buttercup, but to avenge his father. His life’s purpose has been to find and kill the man who killed his father. He has unquestionable dedication and drive- but it is this same single-mindedness that narrows his perspective of the world. He laments to the Man in Black that “It’s been twenty years now and I’m starting to lose confidence. I just work for Vizzini to pay the bills. There’s not a lot of money in revenge.” After almost wrongly killing the Man in Black, he does finally get to put his iconic line “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” into action. The outtake: Leaders are motivated by passion and the big picture.

Westley: Westley is our hero. He is a farmhand in love with Princess Buttercup who sets out to earn the money needed to ask for her hand in marriage. Of course like all good movies it is not all smooth sailing for our hero, Westley, who has to use his wits and his sword to fight pirates, to outwit Vizzini, and to find his way back to Buttercup. His simple background and demeanor belie his commitment and passion. This may be best represented by his line “As you wish.” At first Princess Buttercup thinks it is because of her status that he defers to her but as their relationship progresses she comes to see it is because he loves her and wants what is best for her. The outtake: Leaders are found at all levels.

Grandfather:  The Grandfather brings the book the Princess Bride to read to his sick grandson who initially wants nothing to do with it. Once the Grandfather promises to skip all “the kissing parts” the grandson relents, then is quickly enraptured by the story.  As the grandfather is reading the story to the grandson about the Buttercup’s upcoming marriage, the grandson interrupts, “See, didn’t I tell you she’d never marry that rotten Humperdinck?” to which the Grandfather smirks and replies, “Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up.” The grandfather successfully draws his grandson into the story by inviting him to partake in the adventure and letting his Grandson form his own ideas and draw his own conclusions. The outtake: The best leaders draw the outline and let you color in the details.

The movie Princess Bride has humor, action, and adventure. It also has a lot of good leadership lessons embedded throughout the film. Think about the characters in your office and the parts that they play.  Most importantly, remember that “wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv. ”

 

Retune Your Approach to Communications

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I recently read Seth Godin’s blog Greatest Hits Are Exhausting, and it really hit home. We are enamored with what is comfortable and popular. But, as Seth so eloquently says, “Popular isn’t the same as important. Popular isn’t the same as profound. Popular isn’t even the same as useful.” Think about your favorite singer/band growing up. I am guessing after you bought the album you came to like most of the songs, not just those you heard on the radio. In college, I collected B sides from my favorite artists so I could expand my understanding of their music. Yet today we have fallen prey to the Itunes algorithm mentality both in music and at work. We pump out greatest hits stories to our candidates, employees, and customers instead of embracing our full, rich library of experiences. We focus on what we think our audience wants to hear at the expense of trusting them with our full story. And it is not working. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Index , only 52% of respondents believe that businesses are trustworthy and only 37% believe that CEOs are trustworthy. The CEO rating is an all time low, with 23 of the 28 countries surveyed rating CEO trust below 50%. How can we react to numbers this dismal? Our best play is to tune our communications to be authentic, to share everything you can, and to read between the lines.

Be Authentic: Trust is earned, and broken, by how we engage with our teams. In Stephen M. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, he talks about the “trust tax” most companies incur because employees don’t think their bosses communicate honestly. The tax is the expense of reduced speed and increased costs that result when people are distrustful. Communicating authentically is the number one action leaders can take to improve trust within their organizations. That means eliminating phrases like “achieving operational excellence” when the truth is “we need to reduce staff because we are eliminating this product.” The same is true with candidates.  Imagine if you skipped over the first date politeness with candidates and let them know that “we are a global company with lots of opportunities and resources. However, we also have a lot of bureaucracy and politics, and you’ll need to be good at navigating that here to be successful.” Employees and candidates have already formed their opinions about whatever you are selling. Focusing on facts and transparency will go a long way in gaining their buy in and their respect.

Share everything you can. Layoffs and acquisitions are part of business. Employees know to expect them.  However they also personally know Mary, who was just laid off after 30 years. They know that in the last acquisition jobs were lost and are worried about their security. Engage employees in dialogue- don’t subject them to a monologue. Share your personal thoughts and feelings about the announcement. Be honest about what is keeping you up at night- and ask for your team’s ideas on how to address your your concerns. The same notion holds true with customers. If industry news breaks about your company, don’t wait for the client to call you. Call them first and confidently share what you can about the news. If you are thinking of restructuring your sales team, share your thoughts and ask them for theirs. This is more than just a communication tactic. It’s how you build a reputation internally and externally.

Read between the lines. Great leaders have the uncanny ability to focus on the unspoken message in the room. Nodding heads don’t necessarily mean agreement or support. These is much to hear in the unsaid words behind an employee’s question. Leaders who focus on their talking points miss the message coming back at them. Invite the elephant into the room and host the conversation that needs to happen. Use questions, humor, stories, analogies, and data to engage the team. You may leave having had a totally different conversation than you planned, but likely it was the one that needed to occur.

Tina Turner once said “Making a greatest hits album is easy because you don’t actually have to do anything.” In today’s fast-paced, results-oriented world, there is comfort in repeating and replaying popular messages. But that approach tunes out new ideas and limits our possibilities. Retune your communications approach to drive engagement and business results. Engaging employees, candidates, and customers by being authentic, sharing everything we can, and reading between the lines will be music to their ears.

 

 

Walk A Mile in My Gemba

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Lean principles are no longer a new idea in the workplace. As many workplaces try to “do more with less”, identifying and eliminating waste not only makes sense, it is essential. A key element of the lean methodology is to “walk to the gemba.” The original Japanese term comes from gembutsu, which means “real thing.” It also sometimes refers to the “real place.” This concept stresses making a personal observation of work at the place where the work is happening.  Walking the gemba is a learning activity. We can learn how to do address delivery and quality challenges, how to deal with internal quality problems, how to sustain inventory, and how to make a better use of capital. We can also learn from our teams by asking the people closest to the work what they see as waste and what recommendations they have for improvement. I recently read the article Your Gemba Isn’t the Only Gemba to Walk by Aaron Hunt in the Lean Post. He highlights the value in seeing how others (your customers, your competitors) are working on challenges, and encourages us to walk their gembas for ideas. This got me thinking – what if we applied that to our own organizations?  The article The Future of HR: Run like Tech. Talk like Ops. Think Like Sales. Lead the Change by Jeff Palen offers some great recommendations on ensuring HR runs like a business. I think we can take this one step further by going to the gemba together to help each of these functions learn from each other. If we do, we can connect technology and talent, measure what matters, and be more customer-centric, and by doing so we will drive business value.

Connect technology and talent. Gone are the days of massive annual IT updates, where people were given big binders of instructions and had their systems down for hours while the new release was launched. Instead, technology has moved to micro releases sending regular, small updates in real time. HR could ask IT how to redesign the talent review as a micro release process instead of today’s annual, big binder process. By observing the process steps and the waste removed, HR may gain some insights on how to redesign their own talent process. In exchange, IT could ask HR how to engage stakeholders before a release is launched. An incremental release of a Workday program may launch but won’t stick unless managers understand why the change was made, believe this change is for the greater good, and understand how to execute the change.

Measure what matters. Operations teams are often experts in ROI metrics. Common customer experience metrics used by operations teams include on-time delivery, cycle time, and time to make changeovers. Walking through an operations gemba you may see the line stop and manufacturing employees giving feedback on an inefficiency that slows down delivery and/or cycle time. HR could ask Operations if performance reviews are efficient and if they measure what matters. Are managers delivering feedback in a timely manner? Is the cycle between feedback discussions optimal? Have managers changed over to the feedback approach you launched? In exchange, Operations could ask HR what internal customers are measuring. Is Quality measuring supply chain stability but Operations is switching to low cost suppliers? What are HR incentive plans designed to drive? Is that in synch with what operations is measuring? Making these connections is key to making ROI metrics real.

Be customer-centric. Sales people know that knowing your products is important but knowing your customer is essential. Key elements of the sales process are prospecting, conducting a needs assessment, and presenting benefits to the customer. HR could ask Sales how to better engage their customers.  For example, you may have identified major market segments (employees, managers, executives) but have you fully profiled each of these in order to adjust marketing tactics appropriately? Is your engagement strategy designed to solve your prospect’s problem? The only way to do that is by asking lots of questions. Asking good questions will not only help you determine potential solutions, but also builds confidence, trust, and may help prospects consider ideas they may never have thought of.  In exchange, Sales can ask HR how to better engage their employees. Gemba walks are a great way to do this, and anywhere a sales employee works is a place for a gemba walk. That could be in a home office, a car, or an onsite customer meeting. A gemba meetings looks at flow: what is the process, who are the people, and where is the friction. By asking the employee questions and offering him/her coaching, the sales leader can drive both results and engagement.

Most functions believe they know what their peer functions do. But as the quote says, there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. By walking the gemba together we can get to the “real thing” we need to address to improve our performance. We can also learn from those closest to the work how we are generating waste and what recommendations they have for improvement. How could you walk the gemba with your peers at work?