Leadership development is a big deal in business. People write about it, talk about it, define it, teach it, and throw the word leadership around without giving it much thought. In any business, especially for entrepreneurs, leadership is the key ingredient to success. Bad or ineffective leadership—or none at all—is the key cause of failure. A lazy boss ends up with lazy workers. A profane boss ends up with a rude and coarse staff that do poorly with customer relations. A hyper-critical boss inspires fear and demotivates.
The best leadership development is the kind you live. You will likely find yourself in a leadership role of some sort in just about any employment situation. You might not have a staff of thirty reporting to you, but somebody at some point will follow—or challenge—your example. This is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years and have developed a philosophy and an approach that begins with the goal of being honest with people, but figuring how to do that without being bossy, emotional, or taking away a person’s dignity.
But I Don't Feel Tardy.
For example, years ago I had two sales reps who were late all the time, totally unreliable. Come to think of it, I have a couple on my team right now (haha, you know who you are). Punctuality is high on my list of values, and it should be on yours, as well. Time is valuable and wasting something valuable belonging to someone else is disrespectful and almost always unnecessary. Excuses? Bad traffic doesn’t cut it anymore when a few clicks will give you a Google map with real time traffic conditions. Flat tire? Modern tires seem to last forever and many are designed to withstand a nail or other small puncture. When was the last time you saw somebody fixing a flat tire alongside the road? Power outage? Now that every electronic device has an alarm clock in it, you can’t oversleep because a storm knocked out your power. Once someone told me they couldn't get their car out of the garage because of the power being out. Uh...yeah, ok.
Keep in mind that I'm not talking about someone that is late once in a great while. I'm talking about those that are habitually unpunctual. There really aren’t many “good” excuses for being late—a funeral, goes an old joke, preferably your own. If being on time is important, you’ll always give yourself an extra fifteen minutes or half an hour. If you don’t get a flat tire and traffic is light, you’ll get to work early, maybe even before your boss, and what an impression that will leave!
Anyway, these two fellows who were chronically late were both likable and had potential, but I was getting frustrated and close to showing them both the door. Instead of yelling at them (Mom and Dad’s job), or threatening them (carrots work better than sticks), I used a construction that’s become part of my lingo. I called each man into my office and told him, “When I think about the word irresponsible, I think of you.”
It was a hard conversation to have with one of those guys, who I’d been mentoring through a tough time in his life. I went on to talk about what he needed to do to get on track, and warned him that if he failed he would be let go. I had a similar conversation with the other fellow.
The other guy quit soon after. The young man I was mentoring, however, went on to become one of our top managers breaking some sales records for the region, and was never late again. We had never discussed how he felt about that talk until I heard him mention it in a speech much later as an experience that changed his life. Had I yelled at him, or just threatened him, he might have stayed but I would forever have become in his mind the guy who belittled him. It was a valuable lesson for us both.
Breakfast On You?
Today, I have a little bag of tricks I use to motivate and guide people. First and foremost, I don’t run meetings that waste time. I prepare for them. Everyone knows that if I’ve scheduled it, it’s important for them to be there.
And I instituted a rule for those who are late: they have to stop on the way to work to buy everyone breakfast or snacks, even if it’s just donuts. When it happens—which is rarely now—I don’t have to say a word. When the late-comer walks to the front of the room with donuts, I just give him or her a hearty thank-you in front of the group and flash a smile. The result: my management staff are always early for meetings. This makes the time use even more efficient because we start just when everyone’s all warmed up and ready to do business. It also takes away all the stress of wondering what I am supposed to say to the person that was late. I used to get upset when people came late. Now however, I have to admit, we all route for someone to be a little late. Everyone loves those donuts.
- John Wasserman, Author, No Shorts, Flip Flops, or Sunglasses: How to Get and Make the Most of Your First Real Job
It's great to brag about your children. I do it all the time. However, some parents are unable to resist the urge to think, advocate, and intervene for their sons and daughters. I’ve had mothers call in sick for their college age children: “Her temperature’s normal but I told her she should take a day to rest up.” I’ve had parents call to explain that Junior will be late today because, “We’ve had a lot of family issues lately.”
That might have worked in school but I’d have a hard time coming up with something more demeaning to a young person’s confidence or more intrusive in my business. Real world bosses have no time for excuses for poor performance, especially coming from parents of employees.
If you want to help, do not allow your kids to argue for their limitations. It will hold them back mentally and professionally. Saying you failed to complete your project on time because you’ve got ADD (attention deficit disorder) or you’re bipolar and lost your medicine, even if it’s true, will usually fall on deaf ears. I hear those and many similar excuses often. As politely as I can, I say, “I appreciate you sharing that with me. It must be tough. But I will not let you use that as an excuse for poor performance, ever.” And please don't blame your family. My newest favorite, "I will be late today because my mom made french toast."
No boss expects or wants employees to show up with broken arms that need setting or sweating out a high fever. Barring a legitimately disabling illness or injury, we’re interested in developing people who think and act professionally, and give their best efforts to their work.
So, Mom and Dad, here it is, from the horse’s mouth: treat your kids like helpless children and that’s how they’ll behave. Protect them from failure or criticism and you only make it worse for them when they inevitably do fail at something or get negative feedback, and you aren’t around to make it better. We know you mean well, but sometimes you’ve got to let them learn the hard way not to touch a hot stove.
When my two children, still in grade school, decided they wanted to get some cute baby chicks to raise, one of the images that popped into my head was my daughter sobbing her heart out—and breaking mine—while holding a lifeless ball of yellow fuzz in her hands. The laws of nature are immutable: some chicks won’t make it, and chickens don’t live very long.
It would have been easy to make some excuse why we couldn’t have chickens—dirty, unsuitable for the suburbs, the dog might kill them, they attract foxes that might carry rabies. But I would rather my children’s introduction to the fragility of life and to feelings of grief be over the death of a baby chicken than someone they love. My wife and I encouraged their interest and the chickens became part of our family, each one getting a funny name, and the ones that died getting a proper burial.
Your parental knowledge and instinct may tell you your son or daughter is making a career mistake, but you aren’t a fortune-teller and they have long lives ahead of them. Think about your own life and the lives of people you know who you consider to be successful. Opportunity knocks on its own schedule, often in unexpected places, and frequently after a series of failures. Make sure you give the loves of your lives the chance to explore and learn, even when you know the lessons will sometimes be painful.
(For more on the topic, check out Forbes contributor Kathy Caprino's blog, 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders.)
Want more from John Wasserman? Check out John's weekly blog called John's Shorts.
If you go straight from college into your first real job, it may take some time for your brain to catch up. You may have been smart enough to get to classes late and still ace the exams, but it doesn’t work like that in business or the professions. College is you against the test. Business is almost always a team activity, your team against the world. If you aren’t lifting your share of the weight, someone else has to. Your slacking WILL be noticed.
Jungle vs. Zoo
If college is a jungle (think Animal House), the office is the zoo. Many students go into the zoo thinking they’re still in the jungle. The office chit-chat tends to be about how hard they partied last weekend and where they’re going to be partying hard next weekend. Men and women whose brains are still back there in the frat house will talk about each other using disrespectful language commonly found in rap lyrics.
If you happen to work with superiors who talk this way, here’s how to have some fun—never, ever use language that is foul, demeaning, dismissive, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, pornographic, intolerant, hurtful, or mean. Keep your politics and faith to yourself, and resist the urge to argue with those who don’t. Keep this up and you may be surprised how quickly others adapt to YOUR standards when they realize it matters to you, and that it makes them sound coarse. If this happens, others will be showing their respect for your values, which you established by NOT saying something. That’s a form of leadership—by example—that is authentic and effective.
So, save the sick jokes, snide remarks, and colorful language for your stand-up comedy routine and for your friends and family. In the workplace, every time you use them, in jest or not, appreciated by others or not, you pull yourself down a notch. You surrender a bit of your dignity and risk stunting your career. Remember, the top quality employers look for is strong communication skills.
Don't Get a Room
Because my colleagues and I work with young adults all the time, we feel a special obligation to set good examples. According to some of my peers, it’s the hardest part about being in a leadership role—always being “on” for the troops. A common situation comes up during our periodic regional sales meetings where hundreds of reps get together in a hotel to hear inspirational speakers, learn about new products, see who won the sales contests, and of course, flirt.
The reps range in age from eighteen to about twenty-four. When the work day is done and everyone has time to relax, there are always groups who head for the bar. We managers and leaders try to have fun during the work sessions and bond with our people. Often some of the young reps will invite one of us to go with them, the same as they might ask a coach or a teaching assistant at college.
The answer is one version or another of: “I’m here to be at my best, so I want to make sure I stay sharp and set a good example. Thanks, anyway.” How’s that for a buzz-killer! Sometimes we really want to go out, loosen up, and let you see a bit of our inner child. But doing so ironically undermines our credibility. You might like us better, but it probably wont do much for inspiring you to reach your potential.
No matter where you find yourself working, there will be situations just like that. You’ll be invited to go out after work and have a beer, and that might be okay now and then. Some companies may even want to know you are able to be social and can handle yourself. However, when you are with people from work, everything is an interview. When you do go out, you don't want to be the last to leave. Our experience teaches us that co-workers who lose certain healthy inhibitions tend to get themselves into tight spots, romantically and otherwise. If you want to have a good, cringe-worthy laugh and learn a valuable lesson, go to YouTube.com and type in “Best Way To Get Fired.”
So lead by example, but also be prepared to be pecked at by others. You might be making a presentation to a group of co-workers, lose your place, fumble a bit, and someone decides to harass you. “Shoulda brought my sleeping bag!” “Hey, I can hear the ocean!”
You’re going to feel defensive, ticked off, angry, embarrassed, ridiculous and more. Your body will blaze with shame. You’ll feel the sweat run down your sides. You may want to punch your tormentor in the nose. You may want to chuck the whole thing, flee the room, quit the job. Totally normal, right?
Be prepared to be mocked or heckled or even just criticized. Consider this tactic I developed over the years. I teach our reps to do this when someone in a meeting has a mild attack of social Tourettes—the irresistible urge to make smart remarks for the benefit of an audience at your expense.
Keep talking while strolling toward the back of the room and then casually park yourself, standing, right behind the wiseguy. Keep on with your presentation like there’s nothing wrong, all the while standing right behind him or her. You might be trembling, but everyone in the room will turn to look toward you, which means they’ll also be looking at Mighty Mouth, who invariably will deflate like a balloon, slouching down in his or her chair, looking a little confused and exposed.
Stand there for a minute doing your talk and then just walk away, back to the front of the room where you were, and continue. You don’t have to say a word about why you did it. I’ve seen this work countless times—the guilty party usually clams up for the rest of the day. What you don’t say can be more powerful than what you do. This works in every aspect of life. Being a good communicator—and successful at anything—begins and ends with being a good listener.
As an old saying puts it, ’tis better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
Another tactic in a situation like the one I described above is to stop your presentation and call out the trouble-maker. “Hey, was that a dig?” Rather than an accusation, it’s a question that anyone other than a sociopath would answer no, even if they’re lying. The most common response is a self-conscious apology and no more heckling.
A third tactic is to deal with it later, pulling the person aside privately and telling them, “I don’t know if you realize it, but when you say stuff like that, it makes me think of someone who’s a bully, and you don’t strike me as that type of person.” Keep in mind that snarky or chirpy people are compensating for something they find lacking in themselves. It doesn’t matter what. Just know it’s never really about you.
Find more success tips for work on author John Wasserman's blog.
In my field I meet a lot of young people who haven’t learned the fundamentals of being independent. I’ve met more than a few who have never cooked a meal, even for themselves. I’ve even taught a few college seniors how to make dishes as simple as spaghetti.
The biggest and most important gap is in financial knowledge. Many college students arrive on my doorstep having already made a hash of their finances. Ever get one those “free” credit cards upon landing in college and use it for an emergency, like pizza and beer kegs? I’ve had to teach more than a few business administration majors the basics of interest expense and even how to balance a checkbook. I love teaching people how to become financially fit and for most, the desire to learn is overwhelming.
Most of these students have had the same experience I did—my father never talked to me about money. Without any guidance, I spent too much and saved too little. It wasn’t until my late twenties, when I was thinking about getting married and settling down, that I realized how much debt I had accumulated. I didn’t want to start a family in a financial hole. I finally buckled down, got our student loans and all other debts paid off, and started investing for our future.
Why parents and their children don’t talk about money and how it works is a mystery. In my case, my father was frugal, but by the way he talked about money I assumed he wasn’t very good at managing it, so I didn’t quite see that as an object lesson. When you’re young, the answer to having too little money is to figure out how to make more. My father worked in the public sector, as a game warden, so he never made a lot of money.
Not until many years later, when he was retired and announced that he was buying a second home, did I discover the reason for his frugality—he had been socking money away for retirement. Not only had he been good at managing his money, he was great at it.
Declaring Your Un-Dependence
Becoming independent means becoming un-dependent on credit cards and other borrowings (car loans, for example) to support the lifestyle you think you deserve or aspire to. It’s hard to get a degree these days without ending up in debt, but the money you borrowed to get your education was an investment in your life, at a very low interest rate, that will pay off for years to come.
The money you borrow to buy a shiny new set of wheels automatically makes you dependent on your future income. If a solid opportunity comes along that requires you to move, or maybe take a pay cut in exchange for ownership in a business, or take a year off to travel around the world, you might discover you’ve bought yourself a shiny pair of handcuffs.
If you’ve crunched the numbers and you think you can handle a six-year car loan, do yourself a favor and buy a used car for cash, then each month bank the money you would have paid to the finance company. A used car, if cared for, loses very little in value and you will probably be able to sell it for close to what you paid. After a five or six years of saving the car payments you didn’t have to make you’ll have enough money set aside to buy that shiny new car for cash and be truly independent.
Being un-dependent gives you the opportunity to help those you love. Around the time I began to make some real money and had sorted out my finances, I went to visit my mother on her birthday. She’d been having a hard time and had fallen two months behind in her rent. She was in real danger of being evicted. I went to her landlord, got her caught up, and put the receipt in a birthday card.
My mother burst into tears when she opened it, and so did I. I had never felt as independent as I did in that moment, but also so grateful that I could give back for all the sacrifices I knew she’d made for me. I’d have felt terrible if, instead, all my spare cash was going to support a fancy car or a credit card bill for expensive toys and nights on the town.
A Real Confidence Killer
Being financially independent also protects you from having to borrow from friends and family to support yourself. It’s a confidence killer to have to admit to those who know you well that you messed up. And once you’ve borrowed the money, you will discover that Thanksgiving and Christmas just aren’t the same, especially if you haven’t been able to pay back the loans. You’ll find yourself avoiding those to whom you owe money, and when you can’t avoid them, you’ll feel you have to hide that new tablet computer and park that new car around the corner.
The reverse is also true. If a close friend or relative asks to borrow money from you, don’t ruin an important relationship by saddling them with an obligation they might not be able to handle. I’ve learned the hard way and you probably will also. Instead of lending money, I figure out how much I can afford to lose and I make it a gift instead. I feel better, the borrower has no obligation, and there’s no reason for anyone to feel slighted or disrespected.
Sleep Like a Baby
Being financially sound and independent helps you sleep at night, gives you the freedom to leave a bad job that pays well to take a great job doing something you love that might pay less. It also could affect your ability to get a great job in the first place. Many firms will order a credit check on you when they’re considering you as a job candidate. They want to avoid hiring people who are struggling to make ends meet. People under financial pressure tend to make poor choices, are distracted from their work responsibilities and, in some cases, take risks they wouldn’t otherwise consider.
At Vector, we consider knowing how to manage your finances so important that we’ve incorporated courses into our orientation program on how money works, how to manage yours, how to save, how to raise your credit score, and all the basics that go into living an un-dependent financial life. If you feel confused or overwhelmed by your financial circumstances and your company does not offer a course, find one you can take on your own, buy some books, and learn while you’re young what so many older people wish they had known when they were your age.
And, yes, there are more important things in life than money. The problem is they all cost money.
Find out more about gaining your un-dependence in John Wasserman's book, No Shorts, Flip Flops, or Sunglasses: How to Get and Make the Most of Your First Real Job.
Not Your Fault
If you’re a Millennial (roughly between 18 and 25 years old), you’re probably sick of hearing about how your generation is self-involved, lazy, entitled, and so on. You’re probably sick of hearing how bad the economy is for your generation, and how you’ll never catch up to the standard of living achieved by your parents.
You may also be confused or mystified about what it takes to move out and up in the business world because no one has showed you the ropes, yet.
Thousands of young people just like you have passed through my office during the past two decades. They disliked being defined and pigeon-holed as Gen-Xers or Gen-Yers as much as you dislike being reduced to a spoiled brat sprawled on Mom and Dad’s sofa, failing to launch.
So let’s start with a clean slate. It’s not your fault that our economy was driven into a ditch, short-circuiting your dreams of super stardom right out of college. It’s not your fault your parents loved you so much they wanted to be there cheering you on and catching you every time you stumbled, trophy in hand. It’s not your fault they worked hard to give you the best of everything while tending their careers, and maybe didn’t have a lot of extra time to teach you how to balance a checkbook or write a resume.
In Your Hands
The past is not your fault, but the future is in your hands and no one else’s. You’ve got plenty of time and talent to learn what it means to behave like a professional and think like a champion; what it’s like to test your limits and discover new strengths and interests; and how to develop the confidence to shrug off those snarky comments about your generation and its supposed shortcomings. The future is yours to define. Define it. Take what you have and make something GREAT out of it!
Find out more in author John Wasserman's book No Shorts, Flip Flops, or Sunglasses and make a difference. Proceeds go to Children's Dyslexia Centers.
by John Wasserman
Proceeds benefit Children's Dyslexia Centers