The art of letting go

How difficult is it to let go of something that you build? One of the most difficult things in my career was to leave a successful project, to leave a great team I built, my pet project, to leave behind something I felt very proud of. It took me some time to realize that it is simply for the best of both me and the team. At some point you have to admit that even though what you built is great, it is actually holding you back and preventing you from doing new cool stuff. At the end of the day there is an opportunity cost associate with everything we do and sometimes, especially when doing something we enjoy, we don’t realize that it is costing us something even greater. At some stage you feel that it is not providing you with the challenge anymore and you are not that passionate about it as you used to be. The team is still great and the project is still “the good old” project but you are different.

You are not your job

Is it a good or a bad thing? From my own experience, building several successful teams working on great projects, the most difficult aspect of letting go is that you feel like you are still crucial to the success and you believe that if you leave things will break down. You are afraid that without your guidance the team will not perform at the level you would like to see. You need to realize that if you have done your job then the team is able to survive without you just fine. You built the team, you gave them the tools and taught them how to be successful.

I’m not talking only about the daily execution. The team should be able to be self-sufficient, able to hire the same quality of talent, able to make the same smart decisions, and to certain level keep the culture you created. The cultural aspect is of course something that may change a bit with your departure. If you were a real leader, you built the culture, you constantly promoted the right values, you led by example and now you are out. The team may, and most likely will, build on that culture but create something a bit different. The culture will shift a bit and maybe it is not a bad thing. If the team feels that if you are not around they need to do some stuff differently to get things done, why not?

You must believe that your team are grown-ups, smart adults who will figure out how to make things work.

What if things go bad after you leave?

And what if things really don’t work when you leave? Well, maybe that is not that bad too. Let me tell you a story. It was in 2007 when I was leaving my first big successful initiative that I led for several years. For me it was obvious choice to make as it was a promotion that benefited my career. After I left, the project went sour and in a year the team was essentially dismantled. I took this really personally and hated to see something I built to evaporate so fast. This experience made it even more difficult for me to leave behind things I’ve build. It took me a while to realize that things would probably go that way even if I continued to be there. The market conditions have changed in these twelve months so dramatically that even if I were still involved in the project it would end up the same way. And even if I were keeping it somehow afloat I would be just spending my energy on something that essentially deserved to die. Why not to let go and focus the effort on growing something new that deserves to live? That is sort of natural selection, only the strongest projects/teams survive and the weak should be reborn into something new.

Business is not a family, but still…

Once you hire good people, you mentor them and you build a great team it becomes sort of family. It is very difficult to completely disconnect and cut all ties. And it is not even the right thing to do. So what do you do if you feel the time is right and you need to move on? And how to do it so you feel good about the whole experience? I would compare this to your family. You always have ties with your family, even if you move to work in a different city, you marry, you leave your parents and siblings behind, you move to another country. What do you do in such situations? You keep in touch! You don’t tell them how to live their lives, you are not there on daily basis to provide help, but you are available to talk, to provide a sympathetic ear. When things are really bad you come back and help to fix stuff. And this pretty much applies also to your professional life, with one exception. Business is not a family and it shouldn’t be. Business is business, and as mentioned above you don’t need to sacrifice your whole life to make it work so scratch the part about coming back and fixing it.

So what are the five not so easy steps to follow?

  • Understand the opportunity cost – think about what things are you missing if you change longer than wanted. I suggest you read “Who moved my cheese” parable by Spencer Johnson. It is a short story discussing the need of change.
  • Accept that you are replaceable – realize that everyone is replaceable. Even you. If you have done your job building the team, you trust them and they have the ownership of the business your job is done anyway.
  • Keep in touch with the team – not really to provide guidance but to show that you still care about how they are doing (they, not the business!) and that you are there to listen and provide mentoring or coaching so they continue to see you as a leader you are. Never try to provide guidance on execution! You are not part of the team anymore, the dynamics has changed, you don’t really know what is going on and the guidance you would provide may do more harm than good.
  • Business is not a family – and shouldn’t be treated that way if you want to keep your sanity. Businesses fail all the time and you don’t want to get too emotionally attached. Just keep healthy relationship with the team, you don’t want to burn any bridges behind you.
  • Focus on the future – and never second-guess your decision. As I wrote in “Human brain, the biggest liar of all times”, the human mind has incredible power to misremember things so don’t try to live too much in the past as you are likely to remember only the high-lights and successes and not all the things that didn’t go as planned and thus you would keep saying to yourself “this would never happen in the past”. Chances are, it would and it did.

And if you still struggle and still are not able to let go? Well, talk to someone who you know who went through the same experience and get some mentoring. Or hire a professional business coach to help you focus your mind on positive future rather than to live in the past (regardless how great).

I don’t have kids myself, but in my mind the experience must be very similar to seeing your children to whom you dedicated years of your life to grow up and go their separate ways. You spent years making sure they have the right values, they are self-sufficient, they respect you and love you. But you cannot guide them forever, so at some point you have to step aside and let them live their own lives…

Twitter type summary: “Just let go! At some point you realize that what you built is great, but it is preventing you from building something even greater.”

Have you ever had to let go? How did you do it? What helped you and how it felt?

How to deal with broken promises

If you manage people I’m pretty sure that sooner or later you will encounter a situation where your employee will promise to do something and then fails living up to his promise. And it is not just your direct subordinates, it might be your peers, bosses, spouses or kids. How do you deal with such situations? And more importantly how do you address it when this behavior repeats?

When you look at reasons why people don’t deliver on what they promised you can find a plethora of excuses. Why did you come late? – There was traffic; Why didn’t you deliver the report? – There was too much work; Why didn’t you finish on time? – There were unexpected circumstances. These are all just excuses, ways to mask the real problem in the background. It may be issue of ability to get the job done, it might be question of motivation or as mentioned by Kerry Patterson in Crucial Accountability it might be a question of pattern that was set previously by accepting this behavior.

Set expectations

It all starts a long time before the first issue pops up. When you are building your team make sure you spend enough time with them and that they are used to getting both positive and corrective feedback from you. If people know that you have their own good in mind they will be more receptive to anything you say and it will be much easier for you to address any issues. If the only time you talk to your team is when you have something negative to say you won’t be able to create safety and people won’t receive the feedback well.

The best way to prevent the need for dealing with broken promises is to set the right expectations at the beginning. Explain what you expect to get done, explain what sort of behavior is and is not appropriate and explain how you want to work together. However, if all these things don’t work and you get to a point when corrective feedback is needed you should jump right into it and address any issue as soon as it emerges. The moment you start tolerating unacceptable behavior you are essentially getting silent permission and it will haunt you down the road.

Create safety

The key part of providing corrective feedback or having an unpleasant discussion is to treat the other person as a human being. It is important to understand and accept their goals and them as people. You should never have that sort of discussion in front of other people. You don’t want to humiliate anyone, you want to be helpful and provide guidance for improvements. You also want to be sincere in this effort. If you go into the discussion with having only your own good in mind you will fail. You need to search for a win-win situation. You want to make sure that both your goals and the goals of the other individual are met at the end.

You also need to be transparent. If there is issue to be addressed then say so. Don’t try to sugar coat it or hide it behind some hyperbolical metaphors. If you feel that directly addressing the issue you may come across as personally attacking the other person use contrasting to calm the other person down. You may say something like this:

“I would like to give you some feedback. In no way am I trying to punish you or make you feel inferior. My goal is to ensure you understand my concerns and that we work together on addressing them.”

Address the issue

The first time you observe behavior that is not acceptable you should address it on the spot or as soon as convenient for both sides. Don’t interpret. Just state what you saw and explain the natural consequences of what happens if the behavior persists. This shouldn’t be in a form of threat but rather creating the big picture of what are the consequences for the person, for you, for the team. If you want to make sure that you don’t sound threatening use questions rather than statements.

“I just saw that you taking two chocolate bars instead of one. Do I understand it right that you planned to have both of these for yourself? The agreement was that each team member gets one chocolate bar to make sure there is enough for everyone. If someone takes two then chances are someone else will be left without any. Please, keep this in mind and I expect that next time you will follow the agreement.”

Address the real issue

What happens if the person repeats the same behavior even after you had provided the feedback and he agreed not to do it again? Having the exactly the same conversation for second or third time will most likely not help. Chances are that the person is just not taking it seriously and you need to get it to the next level. It is not about the original issue any more it is about larger issue of not following on his promises.

“I just saw you taking two chocolate bars again. I believe we agreed you will not do it again. Did I get it right that you took them for yourself even when you promised not to do it again? I feel like it will be difficult for me to trust you in the future if you wouldn’t keep the promises you give me.”

At this stage chocolates are not the issue anymore and it is about the fact that the person broke his promise and that is the behavior you need to correct. And once again you may describe the big picture and the natural consequences if he continues to break his promises. It might be that he won’t be trusted with important tasks, will not be able to get to leadership role and will be seen as unreliable by his colleagues.

Address one issue at time

Always focus on the most important issue. If you start piling up too many different issues you will dissolve your message and will not have the impact you intend. The person can then take the easy round and correct one of the less important issues so next time you talk he will be able to use it as a weapon and say that he corrected at least something.

So in our “chocolate bar” example it is obviously still an issue that he took two bars instead of one but it is nothing compared to the fact that he broke his promise to you “not to do it again”. So if he tries to get the discussion back to chocolate, don’t get derailed and keep it at the “broken promise” level. It will have much more powerful impact and will prevent many similar issues in the future.

Follow-up

It is important to provide follow-up feedback and especially acknowledge positive change in behavior. If you can show to the person that you see also his strengths and that you observed he improved the problematic behavior chances are it will further reinforce the message and drive even more improvements.

If you want to learn more tricks on how to provide good feedback check out “Now, how may I help you?” article.

Twitter type summary: “Always address behavioral issue as soon as you see it by providing direct feedback and explaining natural consequences.”

How do you deal with broken promises? How do you ensure that people get the feedback and deliver on their promises next time?

One World…

This post is a bit different. It is not as much about leadership but about the social responsibility of us living in relative wealth. It is a transcript of my 10th basic project speech at Toastmasters. Since it was written to be performed on stage I have included parts in CAPITAL letters where I wanted to put some emphasis by modulation of voice. The dots “…” mean a pause to again give emphasis on a particular thought. [The brackets] indicate a section in the structure of the speech.

One World

[Opening]

[Capture the attention]

Planet Earth. EVERY SINGLE YEAR there are 800 million PEOPLE suffering of malnutrition. EVERY SINGLE YEAR there are 1.5 million children dying from hunger. EVERY SINGLE YEAR there are 1.4 million children dying from lack of access to safe drinking water

ONE… TWO… THREE… EVERY 3.5 second there is a person dying of hunger.

And every single year there is 1/3 of all food produced (1.3 billion tons) thrown away in so called developed countries

[Lead to the main topic]

What is WRONG with the World? Does it feel right? Does this feel like one planet? Does this feel like people really care for one another?

[Body]

[Life if Europe]

I spent most of my life in the heart of Europe and even though I regularly complained about how miserable everything is I was at the end of the day pretty happy. I lived in a very safe environment, had a good education, free healthcare, had lots of food, fresh water and would get regularly mad at my parents for buying me the wrong toy.

And then I grew up and started to travel outside of my country. My first trip was to Australia. Beautiful beaches, smiling people, clean and busy cities. Everything seemed hundred times better. I felt like Europe is the worst place to live… and then I went to Africa.

Child in Tanzania

[Life in Africa]

I spent a month traveling around East Africa. I visited the vast savannas of Kenya, the beautiful national parks of Tanzania and the pristine nature of mountains in Uganda.

I stood in the middle of dessert seeing women walking hours with canisters to the nearest fresh water well, saw small children sitting in the dirt suffering from hunger and diseases.

I visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the cradle of humanity and saw the kids in local school. Small, unhealthy kids who had to travel each day many kilometers through wild dessert to the school as it was their only chance for better future. I came to them and offered something sweet. And do you know what their teacher said? “Please, don’t give them sweets, they don’t have enough food and this will just make it worse.”

I went to Uganda walking in the mountains through villages that don’t see many tourists. And small kids would be curiously running around me, touching my white skin and giggling like they never saw such a strange individual with huge backpack. I have never seen such a joy in a kid. So I stopped and offered them something sweet. And the guide turned to me and said: “Please, don’t give them sweets, they don’t know what to do with it and they will never have it again.”

A year later I went to Indonesia, to Papua. Trekking in the wilderness and visiting some of the indigenous tribes. I was invited to tribe ritual where they slaughtered a small pig and had a feast. I got some meat and when saw the sad child sitting next to me I offered it a bite. And the guide said: “Please, don’t give the meat to the girl. She would get spoiled and she will never taste it again as meat is precious and only for men. Women and kids eat just vegetables.”

[Conclusion]

[Review and summary]

And then I came back to Europe and saw my niece who will never know what hunger or thirst means, who will never need to be worried about safety or unhealthy living conditions and who will have sweets and fresh water anytime she wants without even appreciating the gift of life she is receiving. And once again I need to ask “Do we live on the same planet?”

It is a responsibility of us who live in a relative wealth to share and care. And it is not just about money, it is about social responsibility and it is about the bigger responsibility towards the poor, the Mother Nature and the future generations.

[Call to action]

This is not the planet I want to live on

I WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD where all the kids have enough food and water

I WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD where all the kids can go to school and have all the sweets they desire

And I want to live in a world where everyone really really cares and that my fellow toastmasters needs to start with EVERY AND EACH OF US

Twitter type summary: “It is a responsibility of every and each of us to be socially responsible and care about those among us who need our help.”

Do you have an eye opening experience when travelling the world? Have it happened to you that you came from such a trip a different person?

Now, how may I help you?

How do we learn? How do we grow and become better? How do we learn that we did something wrong? By getting good and helpful feedback. When you are in leadership position you are expected to provide that feedback to your team. How do you do it? How do you give the right feedback in the right way? It all depends on what outcome you desire. There are many ways how to provide feedback but you can divide them into two categories based on what you want to achieve: feedback to motivate further development and feedback to correct undesirable behavior.

Feedback is not food

Most leaders like to practice so called sandwich feedback. In fact, it is the way how most of the leadership training courses would teach you to provide feedback. You start with something positive to build rapport and for a person to start listening, then you say what needs to improve and then finish again on positive side so the person feels good. You need to be very careful with this type of feedback. It may work in the developmental settings when you want also to motivate but it will not work when there is a real issue to be corrected. The danger of sandwich feedback is that by obscuring the corrective message between two positive ones you may hide it too much and the recipient will just not get it.

“Hi John, what a beautiful watch you wear today and isn’t the weather just great? Look I just saw your report and I think you could use a bit more organization and summarize the facts a bit better. But I really appreciate the effort you put into it and the formatting and colors you used are great. Just continue the great job.”

… ehm, is this the way to provide useful feedback? If you were John, would you know what to improve? In fact, would you feel you need to improve anything at all?

Developmental feedback

There are situations when you want to provide feedback to someone to develop his skills. His attitude is good, he is generally motivated to do the job but lacks on necessary skills. The intention is not to stop some undesirable behavior but to build new skills. For that it is important not only to provide insights into what the person needs to improve but also to provide encouragement so he or she wants to improve and leaves the conversation energized and ready to implement your feedback.

The way to achieve it is to end up on positive note that helps the person to feel good about the progress and about himself. You need to build the self-esteem of the person while not hiding the areas he or she needs to improve. This is the way evaluations at Toastmasters work (http://www.toastmasters.org/EffectiveEval).

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I was just going through your report and want to give you my thoughts on it. I can see you put lots of effort into it and I appreciate it. The way you are able to pull all the data together is just phenomenal. Now, how can I help you to make it even better next time? To get the most of the reports I would suggest representing the data in a form of a graph next time so the trends are more visible. I would also like to see executive summary at the beginning so I don’t need to go through the whole report unless there is something that catches my eye. I can see huge improvement from last time so focus on the graphs and the summary and you will get your reports to the next level.”

You may skip the last sentence, as it essentially makes it a sandwich, and instead offer help in a form of “If you are still unsure on how to make it better feel free to come to me with questions.” That way you make it half-sandwich which is more direct and in healthy environment is all what is needed.

Corrective feedback

Sometimes you don’t need to develop a skill or provide feedback on how to have reasonably good work even better but you want to give corrective feedback on behavior that is simply unacceptable and needs to be stopped or changed immediately. This is no time for sugar coating it or beating around the bush. It is also the most difficult type of feedback you may need to provide. So how do you approach it? By being very direct to drive the message home. You need to be very clear to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what you are trying to say.

“Hi John, I just saw your report and it just sucks. I told you several times and you never listen. It is just bad and you need to re-do it right now. Put some graphs there, summarize better and don’t come to me unless it is perfect. Don’t screw it up as always and for once just get it right.”

… ehm, very direct, very confrontational and most likely very inefficient as John is probably still not sure what he needs to change, plus he will most likely become defensive and not able to improve anyway. What he will most likely get from this ranting of yours is “My boss has a really bad day. There is nothing wrong with my report, he just doesn’t know what he wants.”

How to say it

To make the feedback direct and at the same time useful and “receivable” is to follow couple of basic rules

  • Know your team – it all starts days or months before you provide the feedback. If the person you want to give corrective feedback knows you, if he or she got some positive acknowledgement in the past and if you talk to them regularly and not only when you are unhappy there are more likely to receive your feedback
  • Make it safe – you need to ensure that the person is able to listen to what you are saying. You need to create environment when the person understands that you are not attacking but you want to help.
  • Use contrasting when needed – a nice method to help creating safety is to explicitly say what “you are not doing”; for example “The last thing I want is for you to feel angry about this. My goal is to give you helpful suggestions so you can grow at this company.”
  • Describe what you see but don’t interpret – never generalize and never interpret. You are not telepath so always talk only about what you observe. To achieve this use “I” instead of “You”. “You” often feels judgmental or patronizing and can put the other person in defensive position. It is better to describe everything in first person.
  • Don’t exaggerate – words like “always” or “never” should be never used as they generalize, will make the person defensive and will detract from the point you are trying to make
  • Describe impact on the person or on the team – sometimes it may help to reinforce the message to show the big picture and get the person to understand the natural consequences of his behavior. You are not threatening, you just want the person to understand how his behavior impacts his future, the team, the company.
  • Focus on future – don’t talk too much about past and don’t demand explanations of “why” as it will just lead to pointing fingers and finding excuses.
  • Don’t repeat the same point several times – that feels like nagging and at the end may dilute the message; say it once and as clearly as possible
  • Listen and get commitment – try to understand the position of the other person to make sure you are fair and at the same time you want to get commitment from the person that he or she will improve. It is also important to clarify anything that may be unclear and open to interpretations.
  • Create ownership – follow up is really important but you shouldn’t own it. If you want to create ownership by the person he or she needs to own also the follow up session.

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I wanted to talk about the report you gave me yesterday. There are couple of areas that I feel needs to be improved next time. I see you were able to gather an impressive amount of data and when I was going through it I had really hard time getting oriented in all the numbers. I feel some graphs would help and I’m also not sure whether I understand the implication of the data. What do you think about these observations?… [here you give John a chance to comment so it is more of a conversation and you are building ownership of John to include the graphs next time, maybe clarifying what type of graphs and how many] …This sounds good. So to summarize it, next time you will include couple of graphs to illustrate the most important trends and you will also include a short executive summary at the beginning. I want to help you to get it perfect, so can you get on my calendar one day before the next report is due so we can review the draft together?”

When to say it

Say it now! If you want your feedback to have the right impact you need to say it as close to the event you are commenting on as possible. In most cases it should be immediately after you observe the behavior you feel needs to be addressed. The only exceptions are when the person receiving the feedback or yourself are in emotional turmoil. If you are emotional you won’t be able to give a good feedback and you are likely to cause more damage than good. And the same applies if the recipient is emotional. Then you may want to postpone it to ensure that when you are giving the feedback it is being received.

Twitter type summary: “When giving feedback always keep the desired outcome in mind. Is it about corrective action or building self-esteem?”

What is your favorite way of providing feedback? What did work for you and what didn’t?

What should you never delegate?

Delegation and empowerment are great tools in the toolbox of every leader. If you are not sure what is the difference feel free to check out this article: “Don’t manage. Empower!”. However, there is one thing that should never be delegated if you really want to lead others – and that is the leading itself. Every leader should spend big portion of his or her time building the team, coaching, mentoring and developing the team members to become leaders, safeguarding the company culture and sharing a vision.

Build the team

Getting the right people on board is one of the crucial parts of success. If you want the team to perform better than competitors, if you want them to grow and scale the business you need to ensure they want to do that and they are capable of doing it. And not just that, you need to ensure they do it the right way and work as a team. For that you need to hire the right team. As a leader you need to lead the way and enable your team to hire right. You need to be the one who is hands-on involved in recruitment process and in developing your interviewing team so they understand what to look for and who to hire. You should never completely disengage from the process and even when eventually you delegate most of the responsibility to your team you still need to get involved regularly to continue to hone your own interviewing skills as well as ensuring that your hiring strategy doesn’t dilute as it gets delegated to newer and newer waves of your leaders. You can find more thoughts on how to build the right team in these posts: “Everyone is a recruiter” and “Getting the perfect hire”.

Develop the leaders

You hired the right team and that is a good start. But it doesn’t end here. You need to ensure your team understands what you are trying to build, you need to ensure your team has the means to achieve the goals and you need to ensure that the team scales as the company grows. The way to achieve all these things is to be hands-on coach and mentor. It is your responsibility to grow people in the team, it is your responsibility to provide feedback, mentoring and opportunities. As a leader you should never hide behind other people and delegate the responsibility for growing the next generation of leaders.

You should spend big portion of your time with your direct reports and help them get to the next level. Almost everyone has the potential to grow and if you selected someone to leadership position you probably saw in him or her some potential. If they are not growing and not getting to the next level it is your failure more than theirs.

And it is not just about direct reports. Let’s say you have a bright young employee fresh out of university who just joined your team. Yes, you can delegate responsibility for his professional development to one of the team leads but ultimately it is your organization and you are responsible for making sure you have the leadership bench strength when needed. Obviously, you cannot give the same attention to everyone so it is important you identify the next leaders in your team and then dedicate portion of your time to personally work with them and provide the guidance they need. And no, this is not micromanagement or not trusting your team leads, this is simply an additional channel to make the team grow faster.

Safeguard the culture

Culture is not dictated from top down, it is lived from bottom up. However, it can be heavily influenced and steered by the leaders. It is your responsibility as a leader to guide the team and help them to develop a culture that will align with company’s vision and goals. It is not about fancy slogans or presentations, it is about daily execution. You need to live the company values, you need to lead by example and you need to relentlessly look for and correct behavior that is not in line with corporate culture. If the team understands what the expected behavior is, if they are the right people that fit with that culture and if they see the leadership living the company’s values they will automatically adopt the culture, build it and live it.

Share the vision

This is obviously one of the key tasks. If your team doesn’t know where they are going they cannot get there. You as a leader need to have a vision for your team. And that doesn’t necessarily mean great vision for the whole company (unless you are CEO). It can be much more humble if you are running just a small team in a big organization. The vision for your team can be to grow, to get responsibility for more projects, to be able to grow people and build the next generation of leadership for your company, to act as a center of excellence and help other teams with specific knowledge, to provide great customer service, or to build good quality products on time while having fun. The only thing you need to ensure is that the vision you are giving to your team is in line with the global vision of the company. You always need to be able to show to each individual how his tasks align with the team goals and the company vision as that is the only way your team will understand how their work fits into the whole picture and why they are doing what they are doing.

Twitter type summary: “The one thing you should never delegate is providing vision, building, developing, and mentoring your team.”

What are your thoughts? Would you outsource the development of your team? Would there be other things that you would never delegate to others?