May 2010


“Stop wasting water!” One of my pet peeves is when I’m busy at something, vaguely conscious that my kids are doing something in the bathroom and then suddenly realize that the water has been running a long, long time. I’m not sure why wasting water bugs me so much. Is it the cost or the environmental responsibility of living in a state with a draining aquifer? I clearly value efficiency when it comes to water. If you have any doubt, just look at my lawn.

I recognize my hypocrisy, however. My kids are simply doing the same thing I did when I was their age. There’s no way to explore without a little waste. I used to love pouring water from one vessel into another, inverting a glass and pushing trapped air beneath the surface, finding the best way to turn my hands into a cup to bring water up to my mouth, or watch greasy water flee from a drop of soap. Water is fascinating, and you don’t learn about it without wasting a little.

The older we get, the more we value efficiency at the expense of discovery, joy and innovation. Organizationally, the bigger we get, the more we value efficiency, too. We love the economies of scale that come with standardizing processes. And in so doing, we squelch innovation.

As leaders, how can we assure that doesn’t happen? First, allow room for dreaming. I recently read a colleague’s summary of Leadership Divided – What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing, by Ron Carucci. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

The explosion of enterprise-wide technologies has fueled efficiency and standardization. A negative consequence, though, has been the tendency to approach challenges in terms of process compliance rather than allowing for dreaming. There exists a tension between standardization and innovation as a result. Incumbent leaders often view dreams in terms of precision rather than desire.

Of course, we know the tension that results when dreamers encounter one of these big, immovable objects. Too many  emerging leaders have given up on established businesses, churches or organizations and fled to start their own where they could dream, innovate and bring about the change they long for. But established organizations need dreamers and innovators lest we become dinosaurs.

What’s the solution? I think Carucci hits on a good start: “Dream first, set targets later.” I like that approach to planning. We should include a time for dreaming before getting down to process and rigid goal-setting. Leadership IQ wrote an article called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” in which they challenged the traditional view of goal-setting: to create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. The data shows that there’s a better way to create goals that will be implemented. Make sure they’re HARD:

  • Heartfelt – My goals will enrich the lives of someone besides me — customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated – I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I accomplish my goals.
  • Required – My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult – I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Picture the end. How great it will feel. Leave my comfort zone. Not the traditional way we approach goals, but the territory of dreamers. Start with a vision of the future and then set targets toward making it reality.

Second, be sure to leave room in your business model for waste. Experimentation and learning are not always easy on the bottom line. For that matter, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do things yourself than to pass on your knowledge. But a truly healthy organization is like a family. You have to be passing on and empowering the next generation. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to waste resources as they experiment. Then, one day, they’re going to make a discovery that we “adults” never saw. That’s the way with innovation.

The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

This is post #100 for my blog! Seems like that’s a pretty big milestone, and I’m proud to have lasted this long. Thanks for taking an interest in reading my thoughts!

It’s been another quarter, so time for another update on the books I’ve read:

  • Getting Naked, by Patrick Lencioni
  • The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller
  • Forgotten God, by Francis Chan
  • The Divine Commodity, by Skye Jethani
  • While You Were Micro Sleeping, by Steve Moore
  • The Two Towers, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

I’m currently reading:

  • The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M.R. Covey
  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • The Dark Side of Leadership, by Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima
  • The Missional Leader, by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Something in fiction. Maybe something by Michael Connelly.
  • Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner
  • Helping People Win at Work, by Ken Blanchard
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter
  • Crazy Love, by Francis Chan
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

While I liked Lencioni’s new book, and it’s probably my favorite of my recent readings, I’m not sure any of this list will end up transforming my view of leadership over the long term. How about you? Have any of these books been transformative for you?

What is the place for people like Barnabas in management? Saul would never have completed his turnaround if Barnabas hadn’t noted the fruit of his change. John Mark would have been forever labeled a quitter if Barnabas hadn’t taken him under his wing, even at the expense of his partnership with Paul. When the Holy Spirit does a work in one of these “wrong people,” do we have people tuned to notice that change and advocate on their behalf? Do we have the courage or the margin to take a risk on someone working to rebuild trust?

About four years ago in my management career, I decided that I’m willing to take on one “project” at any given time. As long as I’m able to fully support the entire team, I’m willing to give special attention to one person who has had some issues identified in previous jobs or who is beginning to discover new leadership abilities. I’ve seen the problems that arise when a manager has more than one of these cases, and the department becomes known for being a collection of wounded souls or the manager becomes known for his soft heart and inability to turn anyone away.

Having said that, I love the story of David and his band of malcontents in 1 Samuel 22. While Saul was king and David an outcast, men who were in trouble, in debt or discontented gravitated to David’s leadership. When he became king, his “mighty men” took office and filled legitimate positions, such as bodyguard and special forces. Fiercely loyal to this man who took a risk on them, they went on to accomplish great feats like conquering Jerusalem and defeating giants alongside him. When David suggested one time that he’d love a drink from the well in his hometown, three of them busted through enemy lines just to get him a cup of water.

The leader who can spot potential and identify the work of the Holy Spirit in someone is a rare gem. Time and time again, God has used people like that to complete His work of redemption, giving the wrong person a second chance.

  • Jethro helped restore Moses after murder
  • Jesus gently forgave Peter and gave him a new mission
  • Ananias and Barnabas took a chance that Saul’s repentance was real
  • Barnabas took John Mark under his wing when Paul gave up on this young quitter

Who is filling that role in your church and in your organization? May God give us as leaders the eyes to see people the way He does and the courage to follow through on a hunch.

Let’s go back to my personal experience with being the wrong person. What hurt the most was when my boss’s boss admitted in my exit interview a feeling two years before that I was the wrong person for the role. I would have much preferred a courageous but tough decision to the frustration of two ill-fitting years.

Firing is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page quotes a statement from the Tribunal of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana that leaders “care too much about people to let them perform at less than their level best.” I’ve blogged before about how managers should love and care for their staff, and it goes way beyond assuring employment. Have you considered that keeping a person in a job might be the least-caring thing you can do? That’s a hard thing to suggest in this economy.

What should set an organization like ours apart from many businesses is not that we don’t let people go; it’s how we let people go. First, we look them in the eye. As Steven Sample says “a man has to shoot his own horse.” He pointed out that president Nixon used to get someone else to tell a staff member he’d been fired. I remember the day I had to let a volunteer go. It was not a good situation, and I could easily have found business to do while security was escorting him to the exit. I chose to be there to show concern for him. Saying it wasn’t easy is an understatement. There was no way to avoid him at church! We had at least one followup conversation as he struggled to understand the reasons for my decision.

If caring for our staff means getting to know their families and situation outside of the office, we should show the same concern for their families and their unique situation as we transition them out of a job. We should show individualization with our approach to each one. We should go above and beyond in providing for their needs. I know there are laws that govern these things, but too often Christians use the laws as an excuse to do the minimum rather than the maximum. I think if a firing is done right, that staff person could one day become our biggest advocate. Seems crazy, but I’ve seen it happen in time.

Finally, remember that letting an underperforming or distracting team member go is a win for the others on your team. Not only do they see that you mean what you say about performance, but they know that your time has now been freed up to better support them. The wrong person takes huge amounts of management time and resources.

As Christian leaders, let’s set the bar high for our staff, and let’s set the bar high for our own performance as managers. Let’s show courage and concern to those who are performing and to those who are not.

I was just reading Acts 9, where Ananias pushes back on God’s request for him to go and lay hands on Saul. He basically tells God that Saul is clearly the wrong guy, and he strongly implies that he doesn’t want to work with him. He sounds like any number of managers I’ve met. Yet God responds,

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.

To put it in Jim Collins’ language, Saul is the right person for this particular seat on God’s bus. It’s not because he shows any potential for the role, though he proves to have an amazing resume for the job. Saul is simply the wrong guy, and then God turns him around, and he’s the right guy. How on earth do we apply traditional hiring, development and firing principles when God is in the business of makeovers and repentances?

That’s the setting for my post today. When the wrong person is in a job, or there’s a staff member who just can’t find the right assignment, what should our organizational response be? And what should we be doing as leaders in the organization?

When it comes to staff, I think parachurch agencies have to find the right middle ground. We should not be as quick to fire as (many) businesses, whose business model doesn’t allow the patience to retool and develop their staff. We also should not be too slow to fire when firing is warranted. I think it’s safe to say most Christian organizations tend more to the latter fault. We give people “one more chance” as they continue to gush their contamination throughout our departments and organization.

The question we need to be asking is whether the person is wrong or the role is wrong. I have seen many people who are wrong for one role — indeed poisoning those around them — take a completely different tack and find a role they flourish in. Perhaps my own experience has shaped my approach to this issue. Three or four times in recent years, I have taken a risk on someone with bad performance appraisals and offered them a new position that I had a hunch would work out for them. Taking them out of the circumstances that had exposed their weaknesses and playing instead to their strengths made all the difference.

These cases give me incredible satisfaction. Why? Because someone did the same for me. While I trained for graphic design and worked in that field for 8-9 years, I’m a long way from my major today. I’ve changed careers several times in Wycliffe. What prompted my first big career change was a miserable couple of years in a bad role. As I lost trust with my boss, my discontent turned to frustration and depression. I look back on those years as a low point in my management career and in my followership career. I was poison in that department. It’s taken a while, but I now point fingers at myself before I point them at my circumstances or my boss.

I think that’s the first part of the answer: as an organization or as a manager, we should point fingers at ourselves first. I’m reminded of three points Chip and Dan Heath made in Switch about pursuing change in an organization. In short, they expose our tendency as leaders to fault the other person when change isn’t going well.

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Have we been clear in our instructions? Have we been clear in communicating expectations? Have we provided the training this person needs?
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Have we provided good performance management, support, encouragement and care for a staff member who is dry emotionally? Is the pace of change beyond what he can handle? Are we leading by force or engaging him in the vision of where we’re going?
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The Heaths quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error: a deeply seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

So, leaders, when someone on your team is wrong for the job, take a look at yourself and the situation you have put them in. It may well be that the fault lies in your court.

You’ll notice my postings have really slowed down in recent weeks. That’s because thoughts on this topic don’t come readily to me. When I said I wanted to wrestle through these issues, I meant it. So I welcome your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Am I being too naive? Want to push back? Join the discussion!