Latest "Decision Making" Posts
Believe it or not, in a previous life, I was formally trained as a professional baseball umpire. (Yep, that’s me — front row, center — way back in the day!)
I’ve umpired hundreds of baseball games. And I was pretty darn good, too! Good — but unfortunately — not great.
And I knew why. Pitches around the corners!
The fact is umpires will see two to three hundred pitches every game. 90 to 95% of them are no-brainers.
Pitches that a batter swings at? Those are obvious to everyone. Pitches down the middle? Piece of cake.
Pitches in the dirt or pitches up in the batter’s eyes? You could make those calls.
But pitches on or around the corners? Those 5 to 10% of the calls tend to separate simply good umpires from the great ones.
Unfortunately, I struggled with pitches around the corners, and that ate at me.
You see, my goal was not be just a good, average, or acceptable umpire. I wanted to be a great umpire! And I knew I needed help.
Jack was a well-respected umpire with many seasons to his credit. I tracked him down and he agreed to meet with me.
He listened patiently as I went on and on about positioning, timing, mechanics and the like. Finally, I reached the climax in my personal quest for umpiring clarity.
“Jack,” I almost pleaded, “please tell me once and for all, these corner pitches — are they balls or are they strikes?”
I remember Jack paused and smiled, before stating flatly, “It doesn’t matter.”
What! I couldn’t believe my ears! It doesn’t matter?! Had he not been paying attention to me? I had just bared my soul. I’m getting my butt chewed with great regularity out there. And somehow that doesn’t matter?! Well it matters to me!
But before I could articulate my building frustration, Jack added his final observation.
“Phil, it doesn’t really matter because of who you are.
“Remember, you’re the umpire — the decision maker!
“That pitch — ultimately, it’s whatever you say it is!”
Then he paused — I think for effect — before adding,
“Phil, what’s far more important than whether a pitch around the corner is a ball or a strike, is that you call that pitch the same way — all the time!
“Remember, when you’re consistently consistent, people will adapt and adjust their behavior to yours!”
Consistent leadership is a skill any leader can practice.
And there you have the takeaway for umpires and leaders of any stripe who want to great at what they do. Don’t worry about perfection. Perfection is a myth. Focus on being consistent. Consistent leadership is a skill any leader can and should practice.
In the course of your career — like any good umpire — you’re bound to make hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of independent decisions.
The majority of these will go unnoticed, unmentioned and probably unappreciated by almost everyone.
Why? Because good leaders are expected to make good, basic decisions — that’s our job.
But with great leaders — most people will accept decisions great leaders make — even questionable decisions or decisions with which they might personally disagree if that great leader has developed a commitment to consistent leadership. Day in and day out — regardless the situation — irrespective of those involved — in every circumstance encountered.
It’s really pretty simple.
Great leadership reputations are not built by being perfect at the plate. Great leadership reputations are built by being consistent around the corners!
Why Leaders Should De-Brief
There is a lot of evidence available to support the wisdom and value of investing necessary time, effort and energy in the pre-planning of any worthwhile task or activity. Pausing long enough to consciously and thoroughly think through the process, including the anticipation of required steps, phases and alternatives, can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure in any endeavor.
In fact, it has been suggested by time management gurus that for every unit of time (i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.) spent in planning a particular activity, upwards of four times that amount of time can be expected to be saved during the implementation phase of those plans. In other words, if we spend a measly fifteen minutes poring over atlases and maps, carefully predetermining our vacation driving route through unfamiliar terrain, we can reasonably expect to save an hour or more that might otherwise have been lost due to road construction and congestion, wrong turns, dead ends and having to stop to ask for directions. For those of us who, so far, have refused to surrender our pioneer spirit by becoming GPS-dependent (is it just me and my Kentucky/Daniel Boone roots or what?), such focused pre-planning serves as a key ingredient in a more enjoyable journey.
I was in the midst of developing and presenting a months-long, comprehensive leadership and customer service training initiative for the management team of the Ocala (FL) Police Department, when I received an unsolicited call from Captain Jack Suess (pronounced “cease”). The call went something like this:
Capt. Suess: “Phil, I’ve been talking with the Chief about the training you’re leading for our agency. We were thinking that since you’ve never worked as a cop that you might be interested in seeing how law enforcement really works from the inside out. Understanding what we really do might be helpful to you in offering unique perspectives and even additional applications for the training concepts you’re sharing with us.”
Van Hooser: “I certainly would be interested. What do you have in mind?”
Capt. Suess: “We’re in the final stages of an investigation that has been underway for several weeks. Our undercover people have surveillance information concerning two juveniles and a known convicted felon who we know to be actively selling crack cocaine out of one of the public housing complexes. These guys are known to be armed and dangerous. They are also street smart and unpredictable. It’s critical that we get them off the streets before they hurt someone. We’re in the final planning stages of a S.W.A.T. operation that is scheduled to take place tomorrow night. Would you like to ride along with me as an observer?”
My pulse quickened at Capt. Suess’ suggestion. Was it fear, trepidation, uncertainty? I didn’t really know and there wasn’t much time to figure it all out. Having to real idea of what I was getting myself into, I heard myself ask meekly…
Van Hooser: “Are you sure I won’t be in the way?”
Capt. Suess: “Absolutely not! We will be glad to have you along. And don’t worry, you will be perfectly safe.”
Van Hooser: “Worried? Do I seem worried?” I asked, as I laughed nervously.
As scheduled, the following day at noon I arrived at the Ocala Police Department headquarters where I found Capt. Suess waiting. I was quickly ushered into a briefing that was already underway. In the room were a dozen or more uniformed officers, two plain clothes officers–a policeman and policewoman, a representative from the State Attorney’s office and the Chief of Police himself.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I listened as the group discussed detailed plans for apprehending the suspects. They carefully evaluated the intelligence they had and matched that intelligence with the best time, place and manner to make the arrests. Significant time and attention was spent considering the safest and most efficient approach for all concerned–the officers, the local residents, potential bystanders, even the suspects themselves.
As I watched and listened intently to the goings-on in front of me, I had to remind myself that this was not some sort of reality show. It was no show at all. It was reality! In front of me were professionals of the highest order, in the midst of planning and strategizing how to do a difficult job assigned them in the most judicious manner.
Once the meeting adjourned, I headed out to the driving range with my host where I watched the group practice rolling stops and vehicle evacuations. Every stop was timed and rated. No detail was too minor for consideration.
The balance of that afternoon and evening was spent in equally impressive practice and careful preparation for the planned activities of the evening ahead. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.
Finally, by 10:00 p.m.–a full 10 hours after I had joined the planning process–everyone and everything was in place. I won’t attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of the events of the evening. Once the action started there were screeching tires, screaming sirens, shouts and arrests–luckily, there were no shots fired. Simply put, the plan was initiated and the intended arrests were made. From an organizational standpoint, the plan worked and the bad guys were soon behind bars.
I must admit, it was an exhilarating experience, one I won’t soon forget. However, I must also admit that as we drove back into the police department parking lot at about 11:30 p.m., I was more than ready to call it a day. As I exited the patrol car, I stepped around and extended my hand to Capt. Suess. He just looked at me.
“Thank you for including me in all this. It’s been a very valuable day for me. I’ve learned a lot,” I said.
“You’re not free to go just yet,” Capt. Suess said matter-of-factly, without accepting my hand. “We still have the operation de-brief to attend to. Follow me,” he said, as he turned and headed for the administration building. My options being limited, I did as I was told.
I followed Capt. Suess back into the briefing room where the day had started for me almost 12 hours earlier. There we found most of the officers who had been engaged in the operation of the evening, already assembled. For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the roundtable conversation as it centered on specific answers to a handful of questions.
As I listened intently to the discussion around me, a professional reality soon settled over me. I realized that I had worked as a manager in corporate America for the better part of 10 years. I had been engaged in the planning and implementation of innumerable plans and projects during that period of time. However, in that briefing room on that evening I realized for the first time that I had never before been involved in any sort of de-briefing AFTER the operation had been concluded. As interesting as the previous 11+ hours had been, those last few minutes provided me the tidbit that would allow me to be a better leader and communicator from that point forward.
That night I learned the power of the de-brief. Since that night I have been sharing the lessons I learned there with my management audiences by way of 6 questions. Consider these 6 questions carefully. First, ask yourself how often you have used each in the past. Second, ask yourself how valuable they might be should you start using them now. Of course, to yield positive benefit each question needs to be asked openly, answered honestly and acted upon accordingly.
The 6 questions are:
- What did we do well?
- What did we do poorly?
- Who should be acknowledged publicly for their superior performance?
- Who should be redirected privately for their sub-par performance?
- What have we learned from this operation?
- What should we change before the next one?
We all recognize the power that resides in proper planning. But, as has been said before by others, feedback is the breakfast of champions.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
Back in 2005, I read an article in FORTUNE (June 25, 2005) by Geoffrey Colvin. It was entitled, “The Wisdom of Dumb Questions.” The title caught my attention. In the article, Mr. Colvin surmised that “dumb questions lead to smart decisions…” and that a dumb question can “…cut to the heart of the matter, posing a blunt challenge to someone or something–an authority, a policy, the established order. It can make people uncomfortable.”
That made sense to me and I started thinking: What dumb questions should I be asking that might lead me to smarter leadership decisions? I thought you might be interested in some of the “dumb” questions I now suggest proactive leaders consider asking with great regularity.
Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask
Dumb Question #1: How am I doing?
This question was made popular by former Mayor Ed Koch. During his term of service to the City of New York, Koch was renowned for stopping average New Yorkers on the street and asking them this, his favorite dumb question. Why would he do such a thing? I think he realized how easy it is for leaders to become isolated, even insulated from the very people they are entrusted to lead. If he didn’t ask the regular “Joes” and “Janes,” his only other alternative would be to trust the opinions of his advisors–most of whom were even farther removed from the man and woman on the street than he.
Dumb Question #2: What have we screwed up lately?
All of us enjoy having rose petals strewn before us. In other words, we like to hear people bragging and commenting on all the great things we have done and are doing. But what do those kinds of accolades really teach us? Not much, I’m afraid. Praise is great for ego boosting, but rather worthless when it comes to building a foundation for continual improvement. Mistakes, errors, miscalculations, screw ups–those are the things that can really teach us something. Admit it; haven’t you learned more from your mistakes over the years than you have from your successes? Well then, why not spend some focused time seeking out areas where we seem to be chronically screwing up, in order to shine a bright light on those areas as we begin to repair them.
Dumb Question #3: What should we be doing better?
Maybe you really are doing a great job and people are honestly struggling to find concrete answers to your Dumb Question #2. Congratulations! You must be doing something right as a leader. Keep it up. But never forget that some wise person once said that “good is the enemy of great.” And it is. There’s always room for improvement and improvement should be our never-ending quest–to be great at what we do and how we lead. Therefore go out and ask your constituencies — the employees, customers, colleagues, partners that make up your professional existence — what they would like to see done at a better, higher, more sophisticated level. Their answers may prove to shake the comfort zones you have allowed to form around you. But their answers may also serve as the catalysts and motivation to jumpstart heightened levels of performance.
Dumb Question #4: What would you like for me to do about that?
This may be the dumbest question of all and yet the smartest one you can ask. Everyone has an opinion. And even the lowliest of employee is known to openly and freely share opinions with fellow workers, family members, neighbors, even innocent bystanders waiting patiently in the grocery store checkout line–everyone, that is, but you, their leader. Possibly the smartest thing a leader can do is to actively seek out the personal, specific opinions of others. Don’t be afraid to ask them Dumb Question #4, then shut up and listen. It’s nothing short of amazing what they might tell you–in startling detail. The chances are stacked in your favor that you will learn something from the conversation. And don’t worry; I know you’re thinking–what about the worst case scenario? What if they share suggestions that are unrealistic, unworkable and impossible? What then? My advice is to tell them so. In an honest, open manner, tell them what won’t work AND why. Most of the people we work with are reasonable people. If it truly is unworkable, based on your complete explanation, they will understand. And for those who just refuse to understand, at least they can never say you didn’t make the effort to explain things to them.
Here’s How It’s Done
Now that we’ve covered four dumb questions any leader can ask, maybe I should tell you how it’s done best.
1. Don’t label your question as a dumb one before you ask it. The fact that you have the courage to ask the obvious questions may actually make you look brilliant in the eyes of others. It worked for Socrates: after all “What is virtue?”
2. Don’t apologize for asking the question. Don’t dilly-dally. Don’t tip-toe around the question until it has lost its power, its uumph. Just step up and ask it. And ask it with sincerity and an open mind.
3. Don’t worry about what the answer to the question might be. You can’t predict nor control the future–the answer will be what it is. You can begin to deal with it once it has shown itself.
4. Don’t be intimidated if people don’t immediately offer a response to your question. Be patient. Let them process the question appropriately. After all, this may be the very first time their leader ever asked a dumb question–on purpose, at least.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
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Recently a reader posed a sensitive scenario that often proves conflicting for organizational leaders. In essence the reader asked, “How long is too long for an organization to accommodate for an employee’s personal crisis, such as the illness and death of a family member?”
By accommodations, I mean time off, flexible work schedules, and reduction of job responsibilities. In this scenario, the crisis has lingered for two years. Performance appraisals indicate the employee has and continues to perform below expectations. The dilemma is this: How does a supervisor, in a sensitive manner, lead an employee in this situation to a) improve performance; b) accept a lesser role with the company; or c) move away from the company?
Certainly, few leaders want to be thought of as cold and insensitive in a situation like this one. It’s a precarious dilemma. The pain and emotional suffering that is certain to have been experienced by an employee is something that none of us ever want to face. Organizational leaders that work to ease the pressure of situations like this are to be commended. Frankly, in this day and time, I fear most simply wouldn’t make such an effort to accommodate an employee for an extended period of time. They would have either determined that they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–justify the sacrifices on the part of the organization.
But, the fact remains that more is now expected of the employee and the employee knows it. Can the employee rise (return) physically, emotionally and intellectually to the level of performance necessary and required by this position? At this point, no one really knows–not even the individual. But, for the good of the organization and all who are vested in its success, the organization is within its rights to expect more than has been realized over the past two years.
As a leader, have you faced a similar situation? Have weeks passed into months as you’ve avoided addressing the issue? Are your superiors, colleagues as well as your employees questioning your leadership, your fairness, your ability to be objective?
If this reader asked for your guidance, what would you suggest?
Here are some ideas to consider:
1. If the company offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), I suggest utilizing that service to identify an outside, professional counselor to assist the employee. There is no reason to know the substance of their discussions. However, it is fair to inform both the counselor and the employee that the end goal of their session(s) is one of the following options:
a) Eliminate all barriers (including emotional ones) that are currently preventing the employee from returning to the expected performance levels required of the position the employee currently occupies. Identifying specific standards of performance is appropriate and would be recommended.
b) Decide to step out of the current position and into another available position within the company that would accommodate the changes this employee may have experienced relative to professional mindset, performance, energy and commitment during the preceding two years.
c) Voluntarily abandon the position within the organization entirely and seek more suitable employment opportunities given the changes in perspective and priorities that the employee may have experienced.
2. I suggest a firm deadline be assigned to this counseling activity from the beginning of the process, as in, “We will expect your decision regarding what the future may hold for you here within the next 3 to 6 weeks” (or whatever period you think reasonably acceptable).
3. It should also be reinforced that regardless whether Option 1 or 2 is selected, future performance evaluations will be conducted to determine whether acceptable levels of performance are being met. If they are not, appropriate actions will be taken consistent with company policy regarding professional job performance.
These are certainly not easy or comfortable conversations to have with anyone, especially an employee who has been through so much. However, honesty and expediency are key here. The employee needs to hear the truth and needs to hear it ASAP. Any less would be unfair to the individual and to the integrity of the organizational process.
Great leadership is not easy and it’s not always clear-cut. But for those leaders who commit themselves to working through tough situations like this, a leadership reputation of fairness, honesty and integrity is the reward.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
Using the techniques learned as an umpire calling balls and strikes, I illustrate an important decision making tip to eliminate opportunities for mistakes and move from reactive decisions to proactive decisions.
The baseball diamond may be a long way from a manager’s office, but this decision making model has been used far more times as a manager than as an umpire.
Phillip Van Hooser