“Did you fight for me?”

As a child, I remember planting an apple tree seedling late one winter. I carefully chose the site, dug the hole deep and carefully lowered the baby tree into the ground. Every day, I would be there to water it and inspect it for signs of growth. It sat there for weeks, not doing anything. But with the warm spring sun, it began to come alive. Little leaves appeared; it was healthy and green.

But being a child, my attention began to wander to other things. I began to neglect watering the little tree. At first, it seemed fine, but since it hadn’t rained in several weeks, the seedling began to dry out. One day, I went out to find it bare and lifeless, its promising new leaves lying brown and curled on the ground. I felt sad and disappointed in myself at my failure; without adequate rain, you can’t stop watering a young tree until its roots have established themselves. It seems to happen suddenly, but in reality, it’s a process which happens underground, out of sight, only manifesting itself when it’s too late.

People, of course, aren’t trees. But there is a lesson to be learned here; when you plant a new person into your organization, they can survive or thrive, but they need support and care.

During the course of my career, I’ve been on both sides of the desk at termination meetings. It’s never a comfortable situation for anyone. In fact, except for layoffs or reductions in staff, termination usually signifies a failure of some kind. And unless there is a clear case of employee wrongdoing, the blame can usually be shared between employee and supervisor.

Before every termination I’ve conducted, I’ve spent lots of time and effort to document everything, prepare what I was going to say, and even role-played to anticipate questions. Such preparation is mandatory in today’s litigious environment, so you have to make sure you have good information to back up your decision, including documentation of your efforts to fix the situation. In most cases, termination should be the last resort, after you have tried everything else you know to correct a bad situation.

But on one point, a lot of supervisors are forgetting to ask one simple question of themselves: “Did I fight for my employee?” Now, of course, employees are adults, capable of fighting their own battles, and certainly they have the obligation to give it their best. However, when you make the decision to hire someone and give them a job, it’s your responsibility you do everything you can to help them succeed. Going through the whole hiring process takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention the expense of training that employee. Unfortunately, many supervisors don’t take the time to make sure they’ve done everything they can to help that person succeed. Keep in mind that it isn’t just that the employee is going to work for you; you are making a commitment to them as well.

In one past job I had, there was a steep learning curve. I tried to learn, and learn fast; some days, I felt like I was trying to jump on a train going 70 miles per hour. It didn’t help that everyone around the place was miserable; morale was nonexistent, with everybody wanting to leave. I remember my supervisor telling me one day that she didn’t have time to “hold my hand”, because she was busy with a lot of other things. When she said that to me, my first reaction was a flash of anger; in my head I was saying, “Don’t patronize me. I don’t need my hand held; I’m a grownup.” I get that everyone’s busy, and she was obviously overworked and overwhelmed.

But, on reflection, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I did need someone to champion my cause while I fought through the learning curve; I needed someone to fight for me. In that job, I never felt motivated, positively challenged, appreciated or valued; when it came time for the inevitable difficult conversation to take place, I was so defeated that I didn’t feel it could be fixed; I endured the firing with somber resignation and with little protest. It was, in fact, a relief.

In that situation, I failed; no bones about it. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t do the job to the satisfaction of my supervisor. Some battles are unwinnable. But she also failed in that she didn’t fight for me. When you’re thrown out into the deep end to sink or swim, and no one is willing to jump in after you, drowning is a real possibility.

When we employ highly-qualified people and expect them to grow with little help, we are courting failure. Sure, occasionally someone will occasionally succeed despite the lack of support, but those situations are the exception. According to Forbes, two million people voluntarily leave their jobs each month, among the top reasons being a lack of recognition, empowerment, and internal politics. And many others are fired, not for having done something really bad, but because they never successfully transitioned.

I’ve tried to learn from experiences like the one I described; it’s true that we can often learn more from failure than from success.

So, what does it mean to fight for your employees? Taking the tree metaphor just a bit further yields some parallels:

Plant well. What is it worth to you and your company if they succeed in their jobs? What will be the cost if they fail? Remember, hiring someone means you are making an investment in them; why would you not take the time to make sure they are successful? That starts by making the right choice, the first time. And when you do make the hire, invest some time. Sit down with them with an honest list of how you define success, and make sure they understand it and commit to it.  This plan will guide your employee to success, and will help them know how to do their jobs.

Water frequently. People need tending. Make sure you meet with them regularly, and give them honest, positive feedback (not just to fuss at them). Look for things they are doing right, and praise them for it. Praise costs you nothing. You are responsible for setting the tone. If the employee is fearful of meeting with you because every meeting consists of your telling them what they did wrong, that’s on you.

Prune. Successful gardeners know that you sometimes have to prune back unwanted or unproductive growth. Pruning, done correctly, makes the plant stronger and helps it meet its potential. But put away your pruning shears and get out the plan you agreed on earlier. If you don’t like something they are doing, make sure you address it early. Just like training a vine, people need some direction, and they need to know clearly where they stand. If you nip problems early, they will never become big ones later.

Let them grow. Once you have established your employee, and they are heading in the right direction, get out of their way. Make it your business to remove obstacles from their path, and don’t be intimidated by their success. If you have done your job properly, they will not only succeed; there is a good chance that success will be noticed by others and they will leave for other opportunities. If you really want to keep them at this point, it’s going to cost you. But if they do leave, send them off with your sincere good wishes take pride in their accomplishments. Offer to keep mentoring them, and celebrate. Their success is your success.

Keep planting. As Tom Peters noted, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” If you look at great organizations with a culture of leadership, new people are constantly being brought into the pipeline, to go on to success at other places and in turn, create new leaders there. So be on the lookout for new talent, and make it your business to help them succeed.

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The Longview (Book Review)

imagesWe serve a big God, but you wouldn’t know it by the way we often conduct our daily business. That problem, and some suggested ways of dealing with it, are at the core of a new book recently published by Roger Parrott, Ph.D., President of Belhaven University. The Longview (David C. Cook Publishing Company, 255 pages) is an insightful look at how we often doom ourselves to failure (or, at best, mediocrity) by pushing all our energies into solving today’s problems while ignoring the bigger picture.

Parrott, an experienced academician and minister, has been at the helm of Belhaven for 15 years. One of the youngest college presidents ever elected (he assumed his first post at Sterling College in Kansas at 34), Parrott has grown Belhaven from a sleepy Presbyterian college to a regional leader in Christian education which now boasts five campuses and national recognition.

Parrott’s book is at once scholarly yet readable, and provides good food for thought for anybody in a leadership role. It also requires introspection. Parrott drills down through his own decisions and those of others to contrast human leadership with that exemplified by Christ. Throughout the book, he aims his most potent advice at his fellow ministers and academics, but we all need to hear it.

Jesus, Parrott argues, was the ultimate example of how a leader should behave. Never sacrificing the bigger picture for short-term results, Jesus taught us in how he worked with his disciples and how he dealt with the everyday, mundane challenges which are chronicled in Scripture. The feeding of the five thousand; the effects of the Transfiguration; and the events leading to his death: All were challenges which would no doubt have gone differently if in the care of even our best leaders. What if Jesus had chosen to give reckless Simon Peter the banishment he so often earned? What if he had listened to the disciples’ selfish ramblings about whom was greater? And what if Jesus had followed his human survival instincts, which no doubt said “Run!” rather than face his Mission and certain death?

“Because … short-term corporate culture has so permeated the church today,” Parrott argues, “we in ministry have loosened our grip on the biblical model of leadership.” Each chapter propounds a single theme. In “Lead as if You’ll Be There Forever”, Parrott urges the reader to take stock of whatever surroundings in which they find themselves, and do his or her best to build organizations for tomorrow. I confess, I was convicted when the book challenged me with this question: “What will your legacy with your ministry look like twenty-five years after you are gone?”

Many of the chapters in The Longview deal with the personality traits that separate good leaders from bad. Drawing heavily on Jim Collins’ seminal Good to Great, Parrott points out the danger of ego (which he describes as an “occupational hazard” of leaders). Humility and self-effacement are characteristics common to leaders who drive their companies to success; vanity and applause-seeking provide short-term gratification at the expense of long-term success.

Some of our self-serving behavior, Parrott argues, is learned from the earliest years. In this age of guilt-ridden parenting, we think we are doing our kids a favor by heaping lavish praise on every refrigerator-magnet masterpiece. We breathe a sigh of relief when our kids merely pass the test, but we need to push them to do better. Not that it’s OK to NEVER tell your child he’s doing a great job, but we need to seek moments in which they excel.

Unfortunately, these learned habits are present in a great many leaders today, and can doom an organization to failure. OK, confession time: If you’re a boss, when was the last time you actually looked forward to evaluation of your staff? And a better question: when was the last time your employees looked forward to the evaluation? If you actually can answer that question with anything but “I don’t remember”, make sure they nominate you for boss of the year.

The very process of traditional employee evaluation, Parrott explains, is fundamentally flawed. Evaluations, which should be a time to celebrate the positives as much as to point out what’s wrong, are often used as a hammer to get what we want from employees. The reason? Most bosses are rarely evaluated themselves. (Now there’s a shocker.) But, really, doesn’t everybody have a boss? We all need to have someone to tell us when there’s broccoli in our teeth (figuratively or literally). And going through the process ourselves will help us better evaluate and empathize with those who report to us.

To me, Parrott’s most astounding claim (which will probably cause coronaries around many boardroom tables) is “Planning Will Drain the Life from your Ministry.” Now, before you go off whining, “but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” hear me out. Parrott is not the first to suggest that we are often slaves to the plan, but he has perhaps put it most succinctly:”… the process itself drains the life out of our ministries by distracting us from our core focus.” It’s important, he notes, for leaders to be dreamers, sensitive to what God is doing, rather than constricting ourselves with plans which provide their best benefits to the planning process itself.

“What does it matter what I did today?” I asked myself when I was about halfway through the book. “Does it really make a difference in the long-term if I focused my attentions on putting out the small fires on my desk, while ignoring the fact that I haven’t a clue what I would like this organization to look like in 2035?” Of course, 25 years is a long time, but as the pages turn faster and faster on the wall calendars of our lives, it seems we naturally turn our attention to the question of legacy.

Summing it all up, Parrott finishes the book with a sweeping and compelling metaphor called “Catching the Wind of God”. He describes two ways to get from Point A to Point B by water: There are powerboats, which get us to our destination quickly, but the journey won’t be memorable because we are moving so fast, and the motor drowns out the sounds which might make the journey worth taking for its own sake. Then there are sailboats, blown by the “Wind of God.” This journey is likely to take longer. But it is an interesting journey, and we learn a lot along the way. Hearing the soft slap of the water against the hull, feeling the gentle bobbing of the waves, and even holding on through the storms, we learn to trust God. Sailing is anything but easy, and it requires putting yourself at the mercy of the wind. But as sailors know, there is nothing to compare to the joy of sailing. Our lives are just too short for us to miss the trip.

(c) 2010, by William D. Moak