“The Bottom Line”

Posted by jlubans on January 20, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: One of several interceptions during the end of the 2020 college football season.

This past year, the University of Oklahoma’s football team went from last in defense in their league to the best defense in their league.
In the past decade they’ve been notable for an aerial offense run by quarterbacks hurling long distance passes caught by sprinting and soaring receivers.
This year, one sports writer marveled apostatically: ”Is OU’s defense better than its offense?”
How did this reversal happen?
Well, a new Defensive Coordinator (Alex Grinch), helped, along with the leadership of his boss, head coach Lincoln Riley.
The Sooners, as the OU team is known, play at an elite level. All of the coaches are fluent in the best and latest techniques and strategies for playing football, not to mention the nutrition and strengthening routines prescribed for each player. Their objective is to prepare each player to be the best he can possibly be.
Techniques and strategies are inculcated daily.
But, what appears to have made the greatest difference for these players was Grinch’s stress on playing every “snap” of the ball in practice just like they would be expected to play during the game.
In other words, the urgency, the intensity of game day (Saturday) is something to be emulated during practice drills (Monday-Friday).
This mindset, pushed daily by the coach, evolved over the season, and steadily the defense was holding opponents to low scores, much lower than in previous years.
Toward season’s end, there was one word to describe OUs defense: dominant.
What does this have to do with the workplace?
Well, in the workplace we are always puzzling about how best to motivate the troops.
Some coaches rely on yelling, butt kicking, and locker room exhortation. Businesses may use a softer, kinder approach, but it’s still pretty much the same external push to make someone do something.
Alas, these are short term solutions and always need renewal: louder yelling, escalating verbal threats and abuse and more extreme exhortation.
Many players resent being yelled at and tune out. The yelling, however subdued, often is only one way: the coach tells you what to do, what you did wrong, and how you have to improve. Eventually, the berated tune out.
So, then how do you motivate players to achieve? Or do you?
At the OU level of the sport, these players are already motivated.
Unlike many traditional organizations, there are no “lifers” on a football team.
These players want guidance; not a kick in the ass.
They have already bought in. They want opportunity.
They want to improve. They want to be shown how to improve.
They want to be challenged; but in do-able ways.
Now, keep in mind, football teams are large organizations, easily over 100 players composed of a defensive eleven, an offensive eleven, and special teams, along with a cadre of “red shirt” players who practice alongside starters but do not play in games, as yet.
And, there are second and third team platoons (22 players each).
Traditionally, the second and third “stringers” – the “bench warmers” - wait for the “starter” to graduate or become injured; then they get to step in and “step up” and show their stuff.
Due to the virus, many starters wound up in quarantine and their understudies got to play. Some coaches had to rotate players from the 2nd and 3rd teams into the game day plan.
OU appeared to have done this as well as anyone, adding exceptional depth – due to all that talent waiting in the wings - for playing an hour-long game (a televised football game takes about 3 hours).
By the 4th quarter – the last 15 minutes - a team rotating out defenders vs a team that does not is far fresher and stronger.
Fatigue results in errors, often very costly ones, such as interceptions.
As illustrated, the fresher player sprints past the tired opponent and snags the ball: a takeaway!
And there’s a key point: the player (not the coach) makes the interception. The empowered player’s being at the right place at the right time has to come from inside the player.
At post-game press conferences, I am always interested in what Mr. Grinch has to say, but I am even more interested in what his players say.
More than once, the coach used a catch phrase to explain how he inculcates urgency and a winning attitude, the term, “playing to the bottom line”.
Here’s how 2 players explain what the “bottom line “means to them:
“Straining to the ball, playing together, being physical.”
“Striving to the ball, play hard, make those plays, and make those plays present themselves.”
They’ve jumbled the coach’s phrase “playing to the bottom line” but does it matter?
There’s implied urgency (strain, strive) in how each defines the term and how they will themselves to play each snap of the ball and “make those plays present themselves”!
How do organizations achieve this level of urgency?
Do they even want urgency anywhere near them? Well, is that not something we should want in every organization? An inculcated desire to be the best every day.
What is the bottom line for you? For your organization? What’s the ball you strive toward?
Not just in football, how do you get each worker (or most workers) to play to the bottom line? In an epidemic, what does that look like in state government? Is it possible to generate such a mind set in a bureaucracy?
Yes, if you have courageous leadership and a team with a majority of willing and capable followers.

Better than bacon (a lie), better than chocolate (also a lie) but the price is right. 35% off until Valentine's Day, Feb 14.

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

Coaching in the Workplace

Posted by jlubans on January 16, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)


Here’s another leaderly reflection: coaching and being coached.
While management gurus encourage us to coach subordinates, we rarely do so, at least in my experience.
Why is that?
If we desire to be coached, well then it is up to us to find a mentor; don’t expect your boss to be your coach.
They may not want to, they don’t see it as part of their job, or they don’t have the time.
Still, I could have done more with the coaching role that was, for a while, actually scripted into my job description.
Why coach?
Presumably, we all want to get better at what we do. A coach - providing an informed outside perspective - can help us improve, can give us a fresh take on where we want to be.
Sports coaches – from whom we borrow many coaching techniques and in large part justify the notion of organizational coaching - predate executive coaches by decades.
A good sports coach is consistent, truthful, and pragmatic. He or she is clear about roles, and communicates observations to the player.
Are these qualities any different in the workplace? Hardly, but there is a difference.
The best players respect and trust their coach; more importantly, they desire to be coached; they are open; indeed, they expect that the truth, “no matter what it is,” will be shared fully and openly in helpful ways. The “truth” is not to be bottled up or avoided.
For that to happen, there’s got to be mutual trust, the sine qua non for an effective player-coach relationship; without it, don’t bother.
If your organization supports frank feedback, then maybe you can try to create a coaching relationship that goes beyond simple feedback on technical aspects of a job.
Doing so requires a far greater investment than the occasional suggestion for improving personal efficiency.
For one thing, you have to have content, relevance, and the ability to explain what you mean. This can only happen through studying the person, observing, taking notes, mulling over and focusing on the do-able.
Probably the coaching conversation should be outside the workplace – out of the office. You want separation from the day-to-day concerns to gain a sharper focus on individual vs. organizational goals.
Don’t time this event and do not have an explicit agenda.
What you are trying to do is to get past the formalities, the polite chit chat, to something less comfortable, something not scripted but something with meaning for you and the other person.
Here are some coaching questions I could have used:
What do you like most about your job? What do you like the least?
What are your aspirations? Where do you want to be, career wise, in 5 years?
How would you describe your personal satisfaction with your job? Do you want the job to change?
What can I (your boss) do more of for you to achieve what you want?
What should I be doing less of?
Bear in mind, you are not exactly seeking a friendship; you’re after more of a trusting work relationship.
Friendship is not an objective of coaching; friendship is incidental to gaining frankness, and trust.
So, what could I have done differently?
Almost every organization where I worked was afflicted with back biting, undercutting of other workers and persistent turf battles.
A unit’s good work stopped at its door step, only helping those outsiders deemed, like the Hatfields and McCoys, for 'em, not agin 'em.
I could have stopped the back biting; that was coachable and would have been a big step forward.
I could have stopped the intrigue by not taking part. But, how?
Easy. Change the topic.
And model the desirable behavior.
Have frank talks but always with the intention of approaching the criticized person and seeking to find out his or her point of view. Stop the “just between you and me” stuff. Instead, discover why he (the “enemy”) does what he does.
Seek to resolve issues; seek to work together.
If trust is broken, how can it be mended?
Ask the other person, what can I do to make this better?
If you believe a colleague is making decisions harmful to your work, well what, besides complaining to others, can you do about it?
Yes, you!
Obviously, if nothing can be changed, then stop talking about it.
There’s another category for self-coaching; the people you have been avoiding.
Each year you resolve to have a plain, honest talk with those people but the talks never happen. If you were to have that open and frank discussion you might discover several positives about the other person and yourself.
Ask, "I’ve been avoiding you on a couple topics; let me tell you what they are and why they bother me. Afterwards, I’d like your viewpoint. OK?"

Better than bacon (a lie), better than chocolate (also a lie) but the price is right. 35% off until Valentine's Day, Feb 14.

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

“You Built It”

Posted by jlubans on January 12, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Southwest Airline Engine (and plane) over Rocky Mountains, west of Denver, CO, USA. January 9 2021

Early in January of this new year I was waiting for my return flight from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.
I sat across from my departure gate – just waiting and looking at the passers-by of which there were surprisingly many streaming past, all masked.
I was on a SWA dedicated concourse – full of arriving and departing SWA travelers and crews - so it was not unusual that there was a SWA flight crew sitting nearby. I was by myself having a take-away glass of wine (thank you virus!) .
One of the flight crew, a man, asked me if I was going to Spokane, the destination at the next gate and the one his crew were working. That got the conversation rolling.
I asked him about the last president of the airline, Colleen Barret, if she was still working several hours a week in spite of her retirement. He said no, she was less and less involved.
Then I mentioned my meeting Herb Kelleher (1931-2019), the co-founder of the airline and how welcomed I felt sitting in his office. From the first second, it was like visiting with an old friend.
This was in Dallas, Texas, which is where SWA is headquartered.
I mentioned my asking Herb – there was nothing of the “Mister” about Herb – about SWA’s culture of excellent customer service. I asked if the underlying values would change on his retirement.
“No”, he said, “it’s in the DNA.”
I related that story to the flight attendant, “He said that, did he?” he queried.
“He sure did.”
Hearing that, he pulled out his phone and said he had a picture to show me.
It was one of him in ramp agent* gear sitting next to Herb – in a suit - chatting away.
In other words, that’s the CEO hobnobbing with one of the workers.
He told Herb - the CEO - how appreciative he, the ramp agent, was of the “empire” Herb had built – the Southwest Airlines empire, the company.
Herb responded, “I didn’t build it, you did.”
So, here we have one of the workers with a picture of the CEO on his phone. How many workers do you know who carry around a picture of their CEO?
Just think about it.
And think about Herb’s perspective about who’s in charge, who’s responsible for SWAs success, about who should get the credit.

*We know what flight attendants do.
The lesser known “Ramp Agents” guide the plane in to and out of the gate, help get passengers off and on the plane, and unload luggage and cargo and make sure the luggage gets to the right person. They also re-provision the plane – water, snacks, drinks, paper goods.
And, on January 9th they de-iced my plane before we took off for Oregon.
Some ramp teamers, like the flight attendant I met in Denver, aspire to become flight attendants.
See my “No Bean Bags Here” essay.

Also there are chapters on Southwest leadership and culture in my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle. Amazon has it.

© Copyright photo and text John Lubans 2021

“The Hand in the Dark” Points the Way

Posted by jlubans on January 04, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)


While reading a 1920s mystery* – the virus made me do it - a paragraph took me back to a workplace conversation.
I was being counseled/berated by a colleague over my foolhardy emphasis on management theory and practice.
She insinuated I was betraying the profession.
Her opinion – held by many others – was that our noble profession was above such mundane and pragmatic practices.
After all, we went about doing good, don’t you know, and that was sufficient.
Any attempt to quantify the what and the wherefore was not necessary. Doing so implied that somehow we could do better when we were already doing the best.
Imagine the embarrassment when I compared our production statistics with industry peers and found that while we claimed to be first, we came in last in many categories.
Of course, the methodology was flawed! How else could the best come in last?
My colleague advised I read an article (I’d read it years before) by a well-regarded member of the profession.
The article was deemed by my colleague and others an effective apologia, a strong and stately case for a priestly caste. And, it faulted all management techniques as “deterministic, highly reductive and transient.”*
Now, I did not really know what the first two terms meant, but I did agree with the third one: management does suffer from passing fads.
Since I knew the author, I knew he was not against (how could anyone be?) the thoughtful borrowing of applicable “appropriate and proper” business ideas but I knew that he had good cause to criticize the ineffective and halfhearted embrace of business “fads” by some of our managers.
The “Official Mind”
But before I get too high in my dudgeon, let us return to The Hand in the Dark.
The mystery writer explains that an “imperviable dogmatism” (determinism?) can afflict all traditional professionals, in particular bureaucrats.
Such dogmatism results in an “official mind, strong in the belief in its own infallibility, resentful of advice or suggestion as an attempt to weaken its dignity”.
Such a “ruffled (and resentful) dignity (leads the infallible detective’s) judgment astray”, resulting in a “grave mistake” and the near hanging of an innocent woman.
My critical colleague took umbrage – in ruffled dignity - at my seeking to improve our work. Simplifying, streamlining, and improving turnaround times all seemed unseemly.
Even counting how often we did something somehow cheapened it, simplified it and made it, I suppose, “highly reductive” and open to misinterpretation by small minds (like mine).
Anyway, like the hero in The Hand in the Dark, I ignored my colleague’s free advice, persevered in questioning the why and the what of our work and managed to make lasting improvements.
How lasting? Take a guess.

*Arthur J. Rees. “The Hand in the Dark.” 1920. Mr. Rees also wrote "THE SHRIEKING PIT! Both are Gutenberg E-Books.
**Alan Veaner, Paradigm Lost, Paradise Regained, C&RL v.55, September 1994 pp389-402

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

The Fable of The Coyote and the Ape*

Posted by jlubans on January 01, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Photo by Lorne Kenyon, December 24 2020 in Bellingham, WA. USA (Used with permission)

"Any animal without a tail is banished from my kingdom!" proclaimed the lion-king.
He waved his own tail dramatically. "All animals must have tails. If not, be gone before nightfall!"
The ape had no tail, so he packed his bags and prepared to leave.
He was surprised to see the wily coyote packing her bags too.
"You have a most impressive tail!" said the ape. "The lion-king's command doesn't apply to you."
"True," said the coyote. "But this king is a danger to us all: at any moment he could condemn me for no reason just as he has condemned you."
A colleague inquired recently, “Are there Aesop fables with coyotes?”
Alas, no, but – taking great editorial liberty – I have replaced the fox in Laura Gibbs, “The Fox and The Ape” with a foxy coyote!
It seems a perfect fit.
The coyote – surviving off the land – knows a capricious leader when he sees one.
Yes, the lion may be a harmless eccentric. But, the coyote knows better. The lion’s random act of banning tail-less creatures likely presages more oppression.
Like Orwell’s Napoleon the pig, our Lion is well on his way to proclaiming “All Animals Are Equal, Some Animals Are More Equal than Others” and justifying further subjugation of anyone resisting his goal of totalitarianism.
There are no Stalin-like bosses, you say!
Well, what about the petty tyrant, the one that schemes, undermines and plots your demise?
True, you’re not going to be taken out back and shot in the head.
Instead, the restrained tyrant conspires for your rigged departure, a less brutal form of liquidation.

*Source: Laura Gibbs, the Fox and the Ape.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020