Blog

Leading in a Pandemic – Finish Strong

For the last five years, I have gotten up at 5AM to work out during the week. On weekends, I start a little later and tend to go a little farther on the running portion. I distinctly recall a run several weeks ago that I tried to stretch out several miles farther. For me, that was a stretch. Coming back with about one mile to go, I was out of gas. I was struggling, tired, ready for it to be over and just wanted to stop.

That last sentence probably sounds a lot like the way many leaders feel right now dealing with a pandemic and trying to lead through all these new obstacles, on top of all the normal challenges.

As I approached that last mile, I saw a muscular looking guy standing on the side walk, buzz cut, and wearing a marine corps t-shirt. I spoke first, as my normal custom, but his response is what I remember. He said, “Finish strong brother”. Now, I have run that route for five years and have never seen him before. I didn’t know him, and have not seen him since then. But you know, after he said those words, I picked that pace up, lengthened those strides, and pushed through that last mile at a pretty good clip. Here I was not wanting to disappoint someone I didn’t know that merely spoke three words to me.

Encouragement to finish strong is a powerful message. I don’t know what you are finishing, but I want to encourage you to finish strong too. Whether you are trying to finish the day, the week, the month, the year, or the pandemic, finish strong!

Here are some ideas on how to do that:

1. Narrow the focus and simplify. In times of added pressure, new obstacles, or too many variables, narrow what you are focused on and simplify the messaging to the people. Safety focus, Covid focus, and taking care of customers (reliability is huge piece of taking care of customers) is the essential focus right now! These are the three basic focus areas for any business. Communicate that message, lead in that manner, and execute those areas at a high level.
2. Take time each day to stop, assess, reflect, and re-engage. Many leaders are too busy being busy and not effective. Be more intentional with your focus and more impactful. More time doesn’t make you a better leader. Rather, more impact makes you a better leader.
3. Utilize all the resources available to you when needed. Ask for help, get support, throw pride out the door, and stay focused on your team’s success and not personal agendas.
We don’t need leaders operating on an island trying to be a hero. Get a break from the action when you need it.
4. Once the basics (#1 above) are in place, identify where you can improve something each week. Maybe it’s improvement in the work environment for your people. Maybe it’s something operational that would really improve business results. Keep it simple, but don’t ever stop improving things; even in challenging times. Our people need to see us moving forward and not just surviving.
5. Be a great communicator and encourager daily! People need to hear from leaders at all levels now more than ever. Be open, transparent, honest, and always leave them with hope.

Hey, I don’t know if that dude on the side of the road was a real marine or was an angel. What I do know is that this random encounter sure impacted how I dealt with pain and fatigue. We all need to finish strong in whatever we are doing!

Looking Back to Impact Today

On July 5th I completed my 29th year with IP and my 34th year of fulltime employment. I ironically started my first job out of school on July 5th and started with IP on that same day exactly four years later.

As I look back over those years, a few things come to mind:

1. Thankful: I have never been without employment when I needed a job. From 12-15 years old I was able to mow yards, I was fortunate to always have a summer job in high school, was able to work part-time in college, and have been very fortunate to have had steady employment the past 34 years.
2. Content: I have not necessarily enjoyed every one of these jobs over the years but I have learned to be content. One of the keys to this contentment is perspective. Focusing on the people provides lasting significance and meaning well beyond the job requirements or frustrations. I recall giving a facility tour years ago (actually in my second year with IP) to an executive who referred to people in the facility as liabilities. When I asked him what he meant by that, he referred to safety liabilities and said we were better with fewer. While I didn’t challenge him at that time, I did not and still don’t agree with any aspect of what he said. People are opportunities not liabilities. We have an opportunity to impact people every day and truly make a difference in their lives. That’s perspective and where I have learned contentment.
3. Unifier: One thing that I have learned over the years and is even more important today is striving to bring people together for a common cause/focus. While there seems to be more influences in the world today dividing people and causing disruptive divisions, we need unity more than ever. Finding common ground, shared purpose, team based objectives, and mutual commitment all drive unity. Tearing down the walls and building bridges has been and continues to be a primary focus for me.

So 34 years summed up in three words: thankful, content, and unifier. I write this not to draw attention to myself, but to challenge you in each of these three areas. I have struggled with each of these three over the years, but have continued focusing on developing in each of them. Take some time this week, reflect, and give consideration to the following:

Thankful leaders help others see the positives through challenges.
Content leaders can focus on the opportunities (people) in front of them in the moment.
Unifying leaders bring people together, heal divisive wounds, and create a better work environment.

Special Things Happen with Unity

Like many of you, I have seen quite a bit on the news lately. I often reflect back on past experiences to better understand the application for today:

My mom moved my younger brother and me to a small town in North Louisiana when I was about ten years old. My parents had just divorced and dad was not really in the picture any more. We moved into a two bedroom apartment, would qualify as poor on any scale you looked at, but I was blessed with opportunities to play sports almost year around.

One thing I noticed early on that was so different to me (based on where we moved from in Texas) was that the youth sports leagues were segregated. There was a predominantly white league for all the sports and a predominantly black league for the same sports. They were run by the same city director, would compete at times in various district tournaments, but were separate throughout the year. In Jr. High School, we came together and played on the same team and had outstanding success in football and basketball. That success would continue together all the way through high school.

In baseball, we didn’t come together on one team until our 10th grade year. Both leagues had good all-star teams each year, but I don’t recall either league ever winning a district tournament, much less a state tournament. But you know what, when we came together as one team in high school, we would go on and win three consecutive state championships. What we could not do apart, we achieved together. Something special happened when we came together!

It seems so ironic, that a group of kids could come together with a common purpose and achieve so much. You see, when we were in that huddle in a football game, the race of that guy next to you didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we worked together. When we were on the diamond and needed a big out to win a key game, it didn’t matter what league we had played in growing up. We just needed to find a way together to make a play!

I don’t have all the answers for what has gone on in our country over the years nor what is going on now. One thing that experience has taught me though is that special things happen when a group is unified! We worked through things at times, but stayed focused on the team. When a group comes together with a common cause, special things can happen.

For those leading people today, consider these key thoughts:
1. Humility precedes unity. When we humble ourselves and look to the interests of others first, unity can occur. That’s servant leadership at its best. Asking what can I do for those that I lead! Team success is above personal recognition.
2. Common purpose is essential. You saw that in the above story. Leaders have to engage their teams in a common purpose that all value.
3. Be a good teammate. Leaders have to also recognize that not everyone has the same background or outside influences in their life. The old adage of be quick to listen and slow to speak can come in handy for a leader when things are not clear.
4. Seek something great. Don’t limit expectations or just get by with what you have in the past. Leaders provide vision and hope. The acronym for TEAM is so relevant right now – Together Everyone Achieves More!

If a bunch of high school kids back in the early 80’s could figure this out, surely folks can figure this out today. Ya, I know it was just a bunch of kids just trying to win games, but those kids grow up to win much more important things in life.

Special things can happen when people are unified!

Healthy Debate or Just Plain Disruptive

While I try to get in an early morning workout during the work week, I try to commit more time on the weekends. I will usually take longer runs as part of these workouts. There is a trail not far from our home that I particularly like to take on these longer run mornings. During those runs, I come in contact with many others out running, riding, or walking. I speak to everyone I encounter. I make a point to look at each one and acknowledge and affirm them. Now, most people respond back, but some will just refuse and look the other way. Whether they respond or not, I am going to make sure everyone I come in contact with is acknowledged and affirmed. Most respond, but some don’t.

Leading others can be like that too. Most folks respond to leadership, but not everyone responds positively. Here are some thoughts on how to deal with those difficult situations (ok, I will say it…those difficult people).

1. Be sure you separate those cases where someone just as a different opinion on a subject from those that are just trying to be disruptive. Healthy debates are actually a good thing. People will have differing opinions from time to time. I don’t have any issue with someone bringing up a different view on a subject. I recall several instances of changing our plans based on other’s ideas being better than mine (I know, hard to believe right?). We need to have people with diverse backgrounds and experiences bringing up different ideas. The key is the healthy debate/discussion is calm, not self-seeking, and all parties have the aim to better the team.
2. Now, assuming it’s not a healthy debate issue, but rather a “just plain disruptive” behavior/individual that we are dealing with, the first key is to deal with the issue. If that behavior is impacting the team in any way, deal with it. If they are taking away from the right focus, hurting engagement, stirring up negativity, or just harming the team in any way, you have to address it. By ignoring it, you are hurting the team (that you are responsible for) and not doing your job (not to mention you just relinquished your role as leader). Address it or “give the keys” to someone that will!
3. So how do we address it? Typically, a disruptive person wants to do it in public to get attention. Don’t let this thing play out in public. Shut it down publicly, but solve it privately. Don’t engage in lengthy debate in a plant-wide meeting, department training session, or any other group gathering. End the disruptive discussion and move it to a private setting as soon as possible. By taking away the crowd, you have just taken away a big part of the motivation for disruption.
4. In the private (or more private setting) session, keep asking probing questions to get to the root/motivation of their issue. Stay away from personal judgements, attacks, or accusations. Stay focused on your team as a whole; what’s best for them. Use the term “we” when referring to team, plant, etc. Let the disrupter further isolate themselves in the conversation if they choose to. Your job is to lead in the best interest of your team. Remember, you are not trying to win an argument, you are actively listening to understand, but more so, conveying your key messages for your team and that continued disruptions are not helping the team succeed.
5. Put a time limit on the session and convey how much time each party will generally have to present their issues and/or responses. Time frames will require focused discussion and stay away from getting on side-bar issues.
6. Keep in mind, you aren’t going to rid the world (or your plant) of disruptive people. You do need to ensure that they don’t undermine or hurt your team in any way. The key is to not let this person’s disruptive behavior distract the team or you from what needs to be done in the facility. Sometimes getting closer to them will help, while other times isolating them and giving them little attention is the way to go. There is no one answer for this issue. Just embrace it as one of the challenges of leadership!
7. Don’t go it alone. Get others involved and seek advice. You would be surprised at what others have gone through and learned along the way.
8. By all means, don’t spend all your time focused on a disruptive individual and lose the entire facility’s focus. Address the issue, but don’t be consumed by it!

Just to recap:
1. Healthy debate or just plain disruptive?
2. If disruptive then do something.
3. Direct it publicly to a private session to solve.
4. You aren’t out to win an argument.
5. Set time limits.
6. Embrace the challenge.
7. Seek counsel.
8. Address, but don’t be consumed!

Leadership is a Verb

Looking back many years now, I reflect back on one of my first real clarifying moments of leadership. I was moving up from the freshman football team to the varsity and going through fall practice. I noticed the seniors that played the higher profile positions being very vocal during warmup and pregame activities. These guys were also tough on the younger guys and made practice and the locker room difficult at times. I guess we looked at these guys as being the leaders of the team, but as the fall practices went on and the season started, I noticed that these guys were not nearly as vocal, not out front, nor taking charge of anything when times were tough. Rather, I saw a couple of slightly undersized offensive lineman step forward and take charge in time of crisis, times of extreme challenge, and times of pure exhaustion. These guys were also the ones at practice early, the last to leave, and were the ones that would spend time talking to the younger guys throughout the day giving advice and encouragement.

John was one of these guys. I noticed he would be constantly pushing himself to get better every day and would always be encouraging and pushing others through difficult drills or game situations. He would regularly check in with younger players to make sure things were going ok with school and football. He didn’t have the glamor position, never got interviewed after the game, and never was written about in the newspaper. He just did his job on the line and was clearly the leader on that team! He was an example of commitment. He was a calming influence when things were chaotic. He was an encourager when things were tough. He was a fierce competitor when the challenges were steep!

I learned early that year, that leadership was not the position we hold, but rather what we do! We are known by our actions. You can be given a title of manager or supervisor, but your actions dictate whether you are a leader or not.

Leaders care about those they lead.
Leaders provide clarity of direction.
Leaders live a life of example for others to follow.
Leaders sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Leaders communicate, encourage, and correct to ensure others are informed and stay on the path.
Leaders take responsibility for everything.

I think you get the idea. Leadership is a VERB!

During these challenging times we are in now, we need more people stepping up and leading than ever before. The opportunity to influence is there now like I have never seen it! Seize the opportunity.

By the way, we won the state championship that year in a very competitive classification in Louisiana. John went to West Point after high school; not surprising!

TODAY

I got home from work the other night, and I was watching a recording of the national news that my wife had rewound for me. My daughter was there and after a few minutes of listening to how quickly the virus had spread and to all the points of bad news, she asked when things would get back to normal. I guess that’s a question that many ask each day. When will I go back to school? When will I be able to see friends? When will I be able to go back to work? When will I no longer have to fear dying from this virus?

You may have people at work and home asking you similar questions. You are no doubt encountering people who are afraid, frustrated, and fighting off fatigue of just wanting some semblance of what they knew as “normal”.

As a leader, you didn’t ask for this global pandemic challenge, but you are in a position now, like never before, to have impactful influence over those you lead (both at work and home)! Here’s a few thoughts on how to respond to questions like the one my daughter asked:

1. Confront the facts. Don’t downplay the situation, start guessing at a “normal” date, or respond/lie about things you really don’t know. The facts are that we are in a global pandemic that we have not seen in our lifetime. Many people are going to get sick and many are going to die. We don’t know how long it will last. There will be tough economic times ahead as well. We do know that we have to execute our jobs safely and effectively so many will get the food and supplies they need to sustain lives. Those are the facts.

2. Never lose hope. We balance the facts with our firm resolve to never lose hope. We will get through this challenge and help many people get through it along the way. We don’t know when it will end, but we do know it will end. Everyone needs hope right now. I am not talking about a false hope in some targeted date when things get better, but a real hope that things will be better at some point and that we are doing things today that will lead us there!

That balance of confronting the brutal facts and yet maintaining a real hope for the future is the key. To maintain that balance, just do this one thing as a leader:

JUST FOCUS ON TODAY

Don’t look out how long this thing is projected to go on. Don’t get caught up in how many more weeks we have to live in this heightened state of focus dealing with all these issues. Just attack today. Get those you lead focusing on today for tomorrow will have its own challenges. Make the most of today, impact as many people as you can today. Seize this opportunity when people need leaders the most! Go make a difference with your teams today!

Confront the facts, give them hope, and just focus on winning the day!

Visible Leadership

When I think back about transformational leaders in world history, one of those names that comes to mind is Martin Luther King Jr. He had a clear mission, he was a great communicator, and he was very visible leader in many different circumstances. That visibility provided him a connection with people that allowed his message to reach many different people groups. His well thought out communications were the power source for the mission. Can you imagine him delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech using a 30 page power point slide? No way!

As we are in unusual times to say the least, it is so important for everyone in a leadership position to be very visible and to communicate effectively. Who would have thought we would be dealing with a global pandemic? It was not even a consideration as we ended 2019 and entered into a new year.

So here are a few thoughts for you to consider regarding this concept of effective visible leadership:
1. Be present with those you lead more now than ever. When I say present, I mean stay in regular communication with those you are leading. They need to hear from you on a regular basis.
2. Key messages are vital. Too much information is not helpful. Narrow the focus to things that really matter right now. Here are some thoughts on communicating:
a. Educate your people! Information on personal care of handwashing, distancing, regular disinfecting surfaces that employee’s engage in, not coming to work if they have flu symptoms, etc. Don’t assume people are all watching network news.
b. Encourage your folks to ask questions and bring information/ideas to us. Expand and open the lines of communication more now than ever.
c. Don’t guess! If you don’t know answers to questions or issues, don’t panic but just be honest. Tell them we will find out and get back to them asap. Be prepared; know what you know and what you don’t know.
d. Communicate in a variety of ways. While we are not meeting in large groups, talk to groups in smaller, open settings; provide concise written communications; post key messages on bulletin boards and IP TV’s; and be available on the plant floor and in the office for people.
3. Be sure people know and see what we are doing on their behalf.
a. Additional cleaning in the plant. They need to know we are doing that and see us doing it.
b. Eliminating large group meetings but still being effective in maintaining safety focus. Talk to them about our revised approach and execute it well.
c. Staggering break/meal times to reduce the numbers in the break room at one time. Explain why and be creative.
d. Limit outside visitors/traffic into the facility and limit our travel outside the facility. Communicate broadly here by email, phone, and postings outside the plant. Our people need to know and see we are doing all we can to provide them a safe work place.
4. Remind everyone of the importance we play in the supply chain of essential items for people. We often just think of ourselves as just making empty boxes. We are producing essential packaging material that allows grocery stores to be restocked, key products to be delivered to people all over the world, and products that in many cases keep people alive. Don’t underestimate the importance of what we are doing in times like this one.

In short, be more visible now more than ever. Leaders come forward during challenging times. We are no doubt in the midst of a challenge that we didn’t expect nor any of us have scene in our lifetime. Keep calm, stay focused on what’s important now, narrow your focus, communicate well, and execute at a high level!

Want Lasting Change? Change the Culture

I remember my first assignment in a container plant. It was about 20 years ago, and I had just left the very structured paper mill environment. What I quickly saw was a plant that operationally needed systems and effective leadership in the worst way. When I say lacking systems, I am referring back to the days before all the structure that we have today was in place. There was no clear direction on safety, quality, nor reliability.

I recall struggling through those first few months of narrowing our focus, defining some basic systems, and trying to get everyone focused on a few basic objectives. I would later find out from the VP that put me in that role, that the leash was very short on that plant if we didn’t get it turned around fast. I guess that’s why they sent me there; they had nothing to lose sending someone that knew nothing about a box plant to a box plant.

While we saw steady improvement, it was somewhat limited in those first few months. It seemed like such a struggle trying to get everyone doing what I thought they should do. I finally realized that I could work myself to death trying to control and dictate everyone’s behavior. What we really needed was a complete change in the workforce’s approach to work. The change needed was much deeper than just putting in a few systems. We needed a total culture change!

Culture is the collective values and behaviors of a group of people over time. By changing the culture, we were able to move from an “employer – employee environment” to a “team approach”. We were able to move from a “renter mentality” to an “owner view of the facility”. Finally, we were able to move from a “victim view of work” to “mutual accountability”. Hey, it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was so much better!

So here are just a few keys for driving culture change that worked for us and brought sustained change in all areas of the facility’s operation:
1. You have to get complete buy in from everyone in a leadership role. We lost half the lead team because they didn’t buy in! I hope you don’t have to go through that process, but leaders have to be together if you are going to drive culture change.
2. Team members in the plant have to see our values not hear us talk about them. If safety of our people is the number one focus item, then prove it. Shut the plant down at times to talk about a concerning safety issue (and I mean shut it down at times to have the most influence, not the most convenient times).
3. Simplify the key message of what’s important and tie it to why it matters to each person in the facility. There is no goal that doesn’t have a direct benefit to the team members. Make sure the goals/targets get what is needed for success.
4. Always explain why and not just what. “Why” gives the team a reason to follow.
5. Ask for input all the time. Team members need to know we value what they think and not just what they do. You can’t always act on the input, but at least you took the time to ask and listen.
6. Delegate, establish sub teams, and give up some control. Yes, it is risky, and do it wisely, but let go of some things.
7. Communicate simply, clearly, often, and in a variety of ways. Be open and honest.
8. Tear down the walls. There are no departmental walls, management vs labor walls, nor hierarchy of command walls. You want one team with varying roles within it.
9. It’s not group think, but it is group matters. Every decision is made through the filter of what’s best for the team and they need to know that and see that focus.
10. Finally, if you don’t genuinely care about the people you lead, don’t bother trying to drive culture change with the above approach. You will fail.

Past experience tells me systems are essential. Past experience tells me strong leadership and accountability matter. Past experience also tells me that if we want lasting, impactful change, that we have to change the culture. That culture may be how one work team in a facility works together, or it may be the entire plant. You have a culture in your work environment today. It just may not be what you need or want. Either way, you drive change where you can. Your leadership experience will be better and the results will follow!

Communication is the Key

Over the last few months, I have dealt with a variety of issues that either could have been avoided or improved with better communication. I have seen it be an issue in marriages, family relationships, work settings, church groups, and basically any other situation where two or more people are involved. Communication is essential in every setting and is an essential element for any leader to possess in order to have influence.

When we think of communication in a plant setting, we often just refer to plantwide meetings and go check the box that we have done our job communicating. I want to give you a much different view of communication and broaden it to more of a system and not just a check the box meeting. Here’s what I mean:

To communicate broadly, facility wide/large group meetings are fine. Consider these things:
1. How often should be dictated by what needs to be conveyed to the group. I would suggest monthly or every other month.
2. Length: No more than 30 minutes or the attendees lose attention.
3. Timing: At the beginning of a shift, not the end when they are ready to go home or being held over on overtime.
4. Overtime or not: Let your current situation dictate whether you shut down for the meeting or schedule OT. Don’t add excessive OT if not needed, but don’t schedule on straight time and then push yourself into weekend work.
5. Focus: You want to think of these meetings as informative announcements and no more than 3 key messages you want people to leave with. Don’t over use slides, but use them to reinforce key messages and to help clarify key messages. Keep charts simple if you use charts. The presenter needs to have credibility with the audience and will do the majority of talking. Questions are for clarification only in these meetings.
6. Suggestions: If you can develop a visual system in the plant to communicate key metrics, you don’t have to spend much time in plantwide meetings on these items. Again, keep metrics to 2 or 3 and be sure everyone knows how they impact those 2 or 3 key drivers.

To communicate with interactive dialogue with team members, roundtable discussions of 10 or fewer folks around a meal are ideal.
1. Schedule a couple of these a month with different shift times to ensure that everyone has a chance to attend one or two per year.
2. Length: Around 30 minutes or so with meal provided (ready when team members arrive).
3. Focus: Interactive discussion time where team members can bring up topics (getting those ahead of time is good) for discussion. No charts or key announcements. These sessions are focused on what the team members want to talk about. Leader can convey key focus areas, but needs to stay focused on those in attendance and keep the discussion open.

To communicate direct employee feedback and hear directly from employee on concerns or ideas, one to one sessions are ideal.
1. Normal one to one schedule with direct reports are the plan, but seldom do we really get the benefit from these discussions. Yes, the leader needs to give feedback, but leaders also need to be asking the right questions and listening well. We can learn a lot in these sessions.
2. One level removed one to ones. Facility or department leaders taking the time to meet with others in the plant beyond direct reports can be very beneficial as well.

To communicate progress on key metrics/initiatives, consider how you can put a scoreboard in your plant that helps everyone see/know if we are winning or not with key focus items.
1. Again, just 2 or 3 things that drive success. Clearly presented and easy to identify with from all levels of the plant.
2. Keep it current. Don’t halfway maintain it and expect it to be trusted or effective.

That’s just a few ideas on how to think communication systems and not just stuff we do to convey information from time to time. Think of it as an organized system of communicating with our folks with the different forms having different purposes. I will go this far with these next few statements:
1. You can’t lead effectively if you don’t communicate effectively….can’t happen.
2. If you want engagement, communicate better. You don’t need an engagement plan, you need to communicate better! Now to say that more politically correct, your engagement plan needs to involve communicating more effectively.

Communication is a key lever to leading others!

No Resolutions this Year

I have never been a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. Most of these resolutions are not maintained because of unrealistic expectations, a poor plan, or just no accountability. However, I am a fan of renewal, re-starts, and new beginnings and those can take place any time.

In consideration of the leadership progression that I have shared before (shown below), please give consideration to the three key questions that follow:

Leadership Progression:
1. Define your purpose. What’s the real meaning behind what we are doing? When we define purpose with “who” rather than just “what”, purpose goes to a much deeper level.
2. Narrow the focus. What are the few key essentials for success? What must happen and can’t be compromised under any circumstance?
3. Simplify the process. Simplification drives execution. Remove distractions and set your team up for success.
4. Communicate broadly. You can’t succeed without others and others need to know what’s important.
5. Build a culture (of engagement and accountability). You obviously want sustainability; no better way to sustain success than through engagement and accountability.

Question 1: Have you clearly defined the “who” in your purpose?
Question 2: What’s the one thing you need to eliminate that would have the biggest favorable impact on those you lead?
Question 3: What’s the one thing, if you started doing it, that would change everything for the better?

Those are three questions that I have been asking myself in all situations of life over the past few years. Whether you are talking about having influence at work, at home, in the community, etc., those three questions should continually be asked.

Be a leader with purpose, be honest with yourself, and be more impactful in 2020.