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.

Tough Times Require Tough Leaders

I had the opportunity to be a part of four state championship teams in high school (one in football and three in baseball). That was obviously a great experience, but it was also a miserable experience at times.
Let me explain with a focus on baseball. Football is a topic for another time.

My sophomore year, I recall just being a nervous young kid playing second base that just didn’t want to mess up. Winning a state championship in Louisiana was a great accomplishment and not something my school had done in a very long time. We had a solid group of sophomores that played a key role that year.

My junior year was one that came with heightened expectations with the returning players we had, but not many teams ever repeated with the level of competition across the state. Winning that year was really exciting. Just think, 2 in a row!

That senior year was something else. Expectations across the town were incredibly high. Six returning senior starters that had been through prior state tournament runs led to some unbelievable expectations. Anything less than 3 in a row would be complete failure. That year should have been a great experience, and it was, at times. At other times it was just miserable. At times we were complacent, we had personnel issues, we had key people out for various reasons, we got our competitor’s best shot every game, and adversity seemed to be around every corner. In the end, we did win it and won in convincing fashion. I still remember that last out and just being relieved it was over. Wow, what a way to celebrate by just being relieved it was over!

Looking back at that last year, I was not nearly as impactful as I should and could have been. My leadership was not near where it should have been. I was so caught up in trying not lose, that I lost sight of my role and responsibilities as a leader. When I was needed the most, I was wrapped up in trying not to fail at meeting expectations that were too heavy at times to carry.

If you stop and reflect for just a minute, I bet those prior two paragraphs hit close to home for many of us even now in our current situations (forget the baseball example and focus on the issues). With that in mind, here’s just a brief summary of five keys to effective leadership that I have held fast to over the years that are relevant regardless of the situation or team being led:

1. Define the Purpose: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Why am I here? What’s the Win? (think beyond what and think who also)
2. Narrow the Focus: What are the essential key things that we must be great at to have success? There may be a lot of things involved, but what’s the three to five essential things to really highlight and focus on?
3. Simplify the Process: Eliminate anything that is not essential and make things as straightforward as possible. The best strategy is sometimes what you don’t do! Simplicity should eliminate mistakes and lead to more effective execution.
4. Communicate Broadly: If you want people to buy in, tell them what’s important, how they are doing, and how they can help. Make it clear what’s in it for them. If you want to build engagement, just communicate effectively.
5. Build a culture: I would say a culture of engagement (care and discretionary effort) and accountability (responsibility for everything).

Those five broad topics are applicable for any organization, any team, or even any individual. If I ever wrote a book, those would be my five chapters.
In the midst of increasing expectations, adversity, or just plain tough times, those five topics will keep you grounded and focused as a leader, the kind of leader that people need in tough times.

By the way, I went back and watched my former high school team lose in the first round of the playoffs that following year. I can’t imagine how tough that year was on those guys. I wondered that day as I drove back to college had I failed them in some way. Maybe they were just relieved it was finally over.

Defining Moments

We have all had defining moments in our life whether we realize it or not. I am talking about an event or instance which determines ones future path.

I think my first real defining moment in my life was my parent’s divorce when I was ten years old. My mom had to relocate us to a new town, and I did not adjust well at all. We were living in a small apartment, money was extremely tight, and I was on a pathway to trouble. I was getting into fights, shop lifting, and just angry. Within a year or so, I became a Christian through a series of events, and that path was redirected. My circumstances did not change, but my response to them sure did!

My second real defining moment came at the age of 28. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. We had a two year old son at the time, and I didn’t know how all that was going to turn out. She went through months of chemo treatments and came out ok, but at the time, there were no guarantees. That experience really shaped the kind of future husband and father I would strive to be.

You know, those defining moments also take place in the work environment too.

I recall my first assignment as GM in a box plant, after several years in the mill system. I came to a plant with no box plant experience, and the plant was a train wreck in every aspect. The majority of the workforce was just disengaged and didn’t seem to care. I had no credibility, no trust, and seemingly no way to turn that thing around. I had to do something to change the engagement level, or we would eventually be closed.

Within a month, I had my opportunity. The fire alarm went off one morning at the plant. I was actually in the facility sorting through some returned boxes (we had a lot of that), and I made my way toward the converting department and saw the smoke. The majority of folks were quickly getting out of the facility while I made my way past them toward the source of the smoke. We had a couple of employees trying to use fire extinguishers to put out what appeared to be a fairly small issue near the scrap belt of a machine. They weren’t getting close enough to have success. With excessive dust, trim, and oil on the floor (yep it was a mess) it was going to get worse and that trim pipe was right there (trim pipe, cyclone, roof, and entire plant – you see what I was thinking). I also realized this was a chance to have defining moment in that facility.

I locked the machine out, got the extinguisher and a broom, and went to work. The two other folks were there to assist, but it was essential that I take care of it (trust me it was done safely). After about 20 minutes everything was out, cleaned up, cyclone checked out, and all clear sign given. I looked like I had been through a fight. Dripping wet, nasty from being on the floor pulling that scrap from underneath the belt, and covered with dust and grit. I passed by every employee as they came back in the plant that morning.

Now, I wasn’t the most competent person to do the job that morning. We had several other folks that were trained and could have done that job better than me. After spending five years in a mill, I had seen fires much worse, but that’s not the point. I needed those folks to start caring about the plant as much as I did. You know, from that day on things started to turn. It took some time, but that day was the beginning of a turnaround. It was the defining moment we needed.

Whether you lead a team of five or five hundred, there will be times that you will also need to have defining moments. Some of these will come unexpectedly and some you will need to orchestrate. You will need these defining moments to change a direction, emphasize a point, drill home a key value/commitment, or just get people to care. In any case, keep the following in mind as a leader.

1. Recognize the opportunity. These are moments of high influence. Take advantage of them. Be ready at all times. Know your convictions and stick to them in defining times.
2. Respond to more than just solving the problem. Take advantage of the moment and send a message! Don’t just solve the problem.
3. Re-emphasize what’s important. Don’t confuse folks. Stick to the core values, focus areas, and key needs. Keep the focus narrow and drive it home. Be impactful in the moment.

Use these defining moments to set the tone, gain credibility, gain trust, or influence your followers in a manner that drives the change needed.

Every Day Counts

I recently celebrated one of those birthdays that get you thinking. While I was thinking about this birthday, I recalled a story I heard several years ago about a gentleman that called into a radio station one Saturday morning to give some advice to a younger audience that was listening to this talk show. The callers that morning seemed so caught up with careers, money, business, and overall just worries of life, that this gentleman felt compelled to call in.

This is a short recap of that story:

“Thanks for taking my call this Saturday morning. You see, when I turned 55 it stopped me in my tracks. I sat outside that cool fall morning and thought back over my life. I realized how caught up in the busyness of life and the struggle to get ahead at work. I thought back over how much I had missed at home and how I had been so focused on things that now seemed so trivial. I had worked so hard during the week and spent many weekends just absorbed in my own interests, that I had little focus on family or friends/people in general. I vowed that day to no longer waste time or let a day get away from me that wouldn’t be impactful. I figured that most people on average lived to be 75 years old. 20 years with 52 Saturdays a year would mean I had roughly 1040 Saturdays left to live. I got a glass jar and filled it with 1040 marbles. Each Saturday, I would take one marble out as a reminder to make the most of the day/week. That visual reminder has been a reminder for me all these years to make each day/week count. You see, today I took that last marble out. Yes, I turned 75 today. My jar is now empty. I don’t know how many Saturday’s I have left, but I assure you that each week will count for something. I’ll sign off now and just encourage all those listening to make each day count.”

Funny how I recall that story. You see, I turned 55 just recently. I don’t know how many Saturday’s I have left, but I recently got me a jar too. Rather than fill it up and take marbles out each week, I am going to add one each week if I feel like the prior week was impactful. Impactful defined as a meaningful interaction with someone else; that I either intentionally or in the moment truly focused on someone else and had a meaningful interaction with them. Yes, I will be the judge of my own week, but every time I look at that jar, it will be a reminder to make the day count and to make the week count.

If I live long enough to need a bigger jar, great. Either way, I want to see that jar fill up with marbles with one being added each week; representing a meaningful, impactful week benefiting someone else.

I don’t know if this note is a leadership lesson or just a life lesson, but leaders being more focused on others seems to be pretty impactful to me. Give it some thought and regardless of your age, start making that impact today.

I will have that jar with marbles on my desk as a reminder for all of us.

Perspective is Key

Perspective is defined as the capacity to view things in their true sense or level of importance. So having the proper perspective would mean that our view of things or situations would be accurate, sensible, and/or appropriate.

I recall my first job after graduating from college. I had taken a job with one of those national public accounting firms. The first year was miserable. Portable computers had just been deployed, I had no idea how to use them, and the folks I worked for had no patience for lack of proficiency. There was just plain hazing on new folks in the office (they weren’t that concerned about engagement). The firm had hired too many people when I started and told us that half of us would be let go in six month pending results of the CPA exam (talk about pressure). That first year I just tried to keep my head down, learn, work hard, and pass that exam. I really had no idea what was going on around me. Everything was just moving so fast, and I was just trying to keep up.

In my third year, I was promoted to a supervisor level. I was now going to scheduling meetings, attending billing meeting, interacting more with senior leaders, and really seeing how the business was run. For the first time, I had a much clearer perspective of the environment and business I was working in. Not all of it was positive, as I saw a lot of things that were unsettling and disturbing. Things; however, were moving a little slower for me, and I could grasp what was going on. I finally had a solid perspective.

Years later, I can’t stress enough how important perspective is for those in leadership positions. Whether you are leading others in a work setting, facing a personal challenge, or just working through the basic challenges of life, perspective is so important. Here are four key concepts that will not only help you with perspective, but also help those you lead have the proper perspective.

1. Define the win. Regardless of what we are facing on a daily basis, we need to know what success is. It sounds so simple, but don’t take it for granted. Can we concisely define what real success looks like? Do those following us know what success is? If it’s a personal challenge, what’s the win for you? Before we start any business, any operation, any shift, any personal endeavor, take time to define the win. Just defining what you need to achieve to be successful won’t guarantee success, but not defining it will guarantee you won’t succeed!

2. Focus on what you have, not what you don’t have. It’s real easy to get wrapped up in all the reasons we shouldn’t succeed. We don’t have what we need. The people around us don’t care. The obstacles are just too tough. Those thoughts can get going and just spiral out of control. Rather than focusing on all these negative things, take some time and focus on what we/you do have. Build on what you have. Make the most of what’s available to you. Hey, I have spent my entire life having to overcome. I have been blessed more than I deserve and recognize that every day. Make the most of what you do have!

3. Focus on serving, not to be served. Whether you are leading others or just battling a personal challenge, there is something special about focusing our attention on others and not self. Servant leadership is a concept that just allows us to focus on the followers. That focus drives our passion for leading and impacting others. When we take the focus off of ourselves, we can see more clearly and our perspective improves!

4. Eliminate variables – Simplify. I use the term “narrow the focus” quite a bit. To broaden that concept, I would say remove as many variables as possible to simplify things for you and your followers. Clutter in our lives clouds perspective. We often think of things we need to start doing, but we also need to evaluate things that need to be stopped, removed, or modified. If you want to clean up our perspective, we may need to clean up the things that are draining our attention, focus, and thoughts to what really matters (or at least what really matters right now).

Leadership from the Intern

While I will tell you that a couple of my favorite leadership movies are “We Were Soldiers” and “Remember the Titans”, I have found myself watching the movie “The Intern” here in the last six months on numerous occasions. This movie, starring Robert Di Nero, is about a 70 year old retired businessman returning to the workforce as a senior intern at an online fashion company. This guy seemingly has nothing to offer this online tech focused company, but takes his years of experience, knowledge, and pure concern for people to have a huge impact on everyone he comes in contact with. He uses every day and every opportunity to positively impact those around him. He has influence with coworkers, managers, and even the owner of the company. He has no real position with this company, but he doesn’t let that stop him from making a difference with everyone he comes in contact with.

When I watch that movie, it does help me regain perspective. Like many of you, I can get caught up in the day to day grind of the challenges of the day and trying to deliver results. Hey, those things matter and keep us employed, but there has to be more. If you are reading this note, you likely lead people in one manner or another. If we are going to be effective as a leader and have the kind of influence we want, and the followers need, we are going to have to be intentional with our leadership.

Think about what is necessary for you to be successful with your team, your followers. Are your folks better off because you lead them? Are you making a difference every day with your people/followers?

Leadership is influence. Leadership is taking followers somewhere that they could not go/achieve without you. Leadership is a great opportunity and an important responsibility.

The message from that movie has really been the backdrop for my focus this year. I am not a 70 year old intern at a new company, but I do have the opportunity to share 30+ years of life experience in business with the people I come in contact with every day. I have the opportunity to help them narrow their focus, identify key opportunities, and most of all, maintain the proper perspective through the grind. You see, it’s real easy for us to focus on counting injuries rather than caring about people. It’s real easy for us to focus on some operating metric and forget about the people driving these metrics. If the leader doesn’t have perspective, who will?

As you start a new week and really get going into a new month, take a minute and reflect on the impact you are having.

I end every safety leadership class that I teach with the same challenge: You have the opportunity today to make a difference in the life of someone else!

I will end this note with the same challenge. Will you do it?

No Regrets

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in my hometown. Every time I am there and have an opportunity to drive around, I recall some great memories. I think back on some very good friends, some great experiences, being a part of state championship teams, and many more nice memories. But I also go back and recall all the things I wish I would have done differently. These “regrets” haunt me from time to time and overshadow all the good things if I am not careful. You see, for me, these regrets are almost always things I failed to do for one reason or the other. There were so many occasions where I chose the easy route, the comfortable choice, or the one that required the least of me. There were opportunities to step up and make a difference that I didn’t take. There were selfish decisions that I made that ignored what was best for others. I can’t go back and undo those things, but I sure wish I could.

Regrets are hard to overcome. At best, you learn to manage it and focus on the future trying not to recreate the same short-sighted mistakes. I don’t know if you battle these type issues or not, but if you are like me, it’s something you do have to deal with.

With that in mind, don’t spend time going back and dwelling on the past (goodness knows I need to do that less); but rather focus on today. What do you need to do today so that you don’t have any regrets? In the work setting, are you doing all you can to impact those that you lead? Are there issues you need to address before something happens that you would regret? Are there conversations you need to have that will be uncomfortable for you? Are there tough choices you need to make to ensure things get better for your team?

Don’t take the easy, comfortable, safe route each day. Are you really making a difference and impacting people? That’s what leadership is all about.

What do you need to do today in order to not have regrets tomorrow? No regrets!

Gatorade or a Water Hose

I heard Tony Robichaux, baseball coach at the University of Louisiana, say that he would rather recruit players that drank from a water hose than those that had their mommas bring them a Gatorade to the dugout. Now I love that comment. It embraces what toughness in sports is all about. Robichaux is obviously interested in more than talent alone. He is looking for a degree of toughness as well.

That concept isn’t limited to athletics. Regardless of the field of work or service, talent or experience will only take you so far. At some point, you or your team/organization will experience unforeseen challenges or problems. Those challenges or problems will oftentimes be more than talent or experience alone will be able to handle. It will take an enhanced degree of commitment, dedication, toughness, and sheer grit to work through it. It’s these situation that define leaders and their impact.

Over the years, I have seen many examples of this type of dedication and commitment to winning. People sleeping after their work day at the mill because an ice storm was going to impact travel back to the mill the next day, and the mill had to keep running. People stepping out of their normal line of work and helping us fight a fire, deal with water in the plant, or sandbag against potential flooding. There were people finding ways to work through difficult machine or quality issues and getting the product out to the customer. Here recently, people driving 4-5 hours to work due to being rerouted as a result of flooded roads, people staying in hotels to ensure they could get to work the next day as their normal roadways home were flooded, and the countless hours of time people have spent resourcing orders to other plants to ensure customers got what they needed (not to mention the overtime and extended hours at those other plants).

It’s in these times that toughness takes over. Yes, talent matters, knowledge matters, and experience makes a difference. Without that inner determination to fight through obstacles, those attributes are meaningless. I don’t know if you can teach toughness, but you can sure practice it and model it for others.

So as you continue to focus on developing as a leader and developing others to lead, it’s not just about technical ability, communication skills, analytical skills, or motivational ability, but also about sheer toughness at times. The willingness and determination to face a challenge, to find a way to win, and to bring others along with you in that battle.

Looking back, I don’t think my mom ever brought me a Gatorade to the dugout or sideline, and I sure drank out of a bunch of water hoses growing up. Maybe we need to turn the hose back on!

A Leadership Message from Jethro

For those of you thinking about the Beverly Hillbillies, that’s not the Jethro I am referring to.
Rather, I was reminded of a different Jethro a few weekends ago. Every year ABC shows the Charlton Heston film “The Ten Commandments”. While there are many obvious leadership messages with Moses leading so many people, there is one subtle leadership message that could often be missed, but one that I think is outstanding.

Shortly after the Israelites cross the Red Sea, Jethro, Moses father-in-law, came to the camp to visit Moses and his family. Jethro observed Moses meeting with people and resolving disputes from morning till evening. Jethro’s statement to Moses was, “What you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out. The thing is too heavy for you!” He went on to tell Moses that it was not effective for the people and that he needed different levels of leadership – some over hundreds, some over fifties, and some over tens. Moses would set the direction, but others would carry it out on direct levels. Moses would also just handle the “great matters”, and the other leaders would handle the “smaller matters”. Moses needed to find trustworthy leaders that would be an extension of himself to the people on a more personal level.

So we have a great depiction of how layers of leadership are to work in an account that took place so many years ago.

Taking this example to our present situation looks something like the following:

Front line leaders have more impact on the “followers” than anyone else. FLL’s are really the key to culture. The execution level is where strategy, plans, and programs become who we are and what we do. Without FLL’s driving execution, all those strategies and plans are just talk. FLL’s really decide what we accept and don’t accept.

Managers focus on shaping the vision, developing the plans/strategies, equipping the FLL’s and followers for success, and removing obstacles. Regardless of the level of management, that’s essentially what leaders at this level do.

So, if you are reading this message, there are a few key things that you need to note:
1. Everyone in a leadership role, regardless of level, is essential to success. Don’t underestimate your importance.
2. Trustworthiness (credibility) of any leader is the most important attribute for success. (not knowledge or technical ability)
3. Stay in your lane. Jethro gave Moses a lesson in work life balance in a culture with no cell phones or emails. Do your role well but let/expect others to do their roles well too.
4. Less may be more (effective). Doing more is not always in the best interest of your organization. Slow down from all the busyness and evaluate effectiveness on a regular basis.
5. Address issues but realize that issues can be addressed in a variety of ways. Empower trustworthy leaders and function as a unit!