French Revolutionist, Maximilian Francois Robespierre said, “A leader has two important characteristics; first he is going somewhere and second, he is able to persuade other people to go with him.” Had Maximilian been alive today, he may possibly have made that statement more politically correct by saying “he or she”. He most certainly would have added, “And third, he must be Extreme.”
Since today’s world is anything except “business as usual”, Human Resources Professional Group is pleased to bring you this leadership inspiration from noted speaker and leadership expert, Steve Farber.
The Extreme Leader’s Handbook: Four Rules for Extreme Feedback
By Steve Farber
Founder, Extreme Leadership
and a Tom Peters Company Fellow
Extreme Leadership for Extreme Times Business has become extreme, revolutionary and increasingly turbulent. “Dot Com” companies booted up overnight, waged an all-out war for talent, and then crashed in a flash. In a blink, we’ve gone from the world of warehouses and steno pools to 24-hour help desks, on-line travel reservations, Enterprise Resource Planning and e-commerce. Rapid advances in technology are shifting the ways we interact with each other.
When a friend of mine sent me an email from his Palm hand-held, I was certain that things had changed: he was sitting across the dinner table from me at the time. It said, “How’s the salad?”
None of us knows how this will all play out in the end: we are like skateboarders collectively hurtling down a 600-foot railing and hoping upon hope that we can stick the landing. As employees and managers, we are constantly told to be more innovative, more creative, to add more value, and to do it all with less: we have fewer people to work with and fewer budget dollars to spend. To quote Dick Nettel, Senior Vice President at Bank of America, “The old way just ain’t gonna get it done. Period.”
If you want to make significant things happen for you and your organization, you’ll have to do things that most people would see as extreme. Your colleagues and staff won’t follow theoreticians. They won’t fall into step behind rhetoric. They will respond to significant and dramatic action: Extreme Leadership.
The word, “extreme” started to become a popular buzzword with Generation Xers and was most commonly used, initially, in “extreme sports.” Since then, extreme is used in commercials to describe everything from sports to clothing to food. I don’t want a cheeseburger anymore—cheeseburgers are for wimps—give me an extreme cheeseburger. “Extreme Leadership,” then, is a reflection of the times. But your ability to lead doesn’t come from trendy lingo, the books on your shelves, your place on the organizational chart or that fashionable title on your business card. Those who wear “leader” as a label without putting their guts and hearts into the act of leading are merely fashion hounds—the posers of the business world. On the other hand, the Extreme Leader skates on the edge and operates in a zone of risk…especially in the much-abused and vastly misunderstood arena of interpersonal communication.
Extreme Feedback for Extreme Leaders It’s the oldest skill in the management texts: listen to your employees. Seek their input. Ask their opinions. Every book on management or leadership that you have ever—or will ever—pick up says the same thing. But they miss the point.
It’s not enough to ask for feedback; you have to be genuinely interested in the response—especially if you think you won’t like it. Those posing as leaders seek feedback because they know they should, not because they’re really interested.
Many companies go to great lengths to appear attentive. They hold focus groups, administer behavioral inventories, distribute survey cards, install 800 number hotlines and form task forces with snappy acronyms like the Proactive Ownership Oriented Team (POOT) or the Union of Front Line Employee Members (UFLEM) or the Great Reliable Underling Nerd Team (GRUNT). Although these task forces often develop brilliant solutions to customer and company problems, they are rarely successful. Why? Simple. Organizations are collections of people, and most people don’t want to hear about what’s wrong with the system or with the leadership (themselves).
Extreme Leaders, on the other hand, seek extreme feedback because they need it in order to be great. That desire to hear the unpleasant truth brings us to rule number one for seeking extreme feedback: Shun the 51% Rule A number of years ago, the General Manager of a distribution center for a multinational company hired me to come to Los Angeles and “teach leadership to those people.” He hadn’t said it that way, exactly, but as it turned out, that was the gist of it. He was infamous at his center for two incidents that epitomized his management approach. Once, at an “all hands” meeting, he stood up and said, “I want your input and opinions on things around here. I want to know what you think. Just remember: I have fifty one percent of the vote.” The employees were so angry that they were still telling the story ten years later when I showed up. The 51% Rule, as it came to be known, meant, “Talk all you want, but this is my show. If you don’t like it, go home,” and it was—judging by his nickname—his legacy: employees called him “The 51% Guy,” and it was not a term of endearment.
When I first heard that story from some of his employees, I wondered if he’d been misunderstood. Maybe, I had said to them, he was trying to say that he wanted their ideas, and that he’d use that valuable input in making his decisions—which, I added, is a very smart way to run a business. They laughed at me.
Then they told me about incident number two. Around the same time of his little speech, apparently, a few of the employees were in his office “offering their valuable insights into the improvement of the distribution center,” and in the middle of the conversation, the 51% Guy picked up a glass of water from his desk and said, “You see the water level in this glass? Watch what happens when I stick my finger in there. See how the level doesn’t change much when my finger is in the water or out? See that?” He wagged his moist index finger in front of their faces, “This is you.” He said. “Whether you’re here” (dunk) “or not” (wag) “it makes no difference to us.”
I know this isn’t hard science, but when you put the 51% speech together with the finger-dipping analogy, you get pretty clear anecdotal evidence that The Guy was an autocrat at best and more likely a dictator. The leadership training that he’d sponsored was nothing more than a vain attempt to bolster his image.
Bottom line: if you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it. You’re not fooling anybody by pretending to be magnanimous. If you really have the desire, however, proceed to rule number two: Put Yourself at Risk Forget Superman. Forget Wonder Woman. There is no such thing as an invulnerable man or woman, so you can stop trying to be one at work. By asking for feedback (and meaning it) you automatically put yourself in what can feel like an exposed, underbelly-up-to-the-mad-wolves position. But—and this is counterintuitive—it’s really a very strong position for a leader to be in. We follow human beings, not idealized icons of unattainable perfection, so your vulnerability gives us the opportunity to connect with you human to human, and a strong human connection engenders commitment and loyalty, the elements that every leader longs for in his or her team. Putting yourself at risk when asking for extreme feedback not only gives you the chance to learn from those around you, it deepens the relationships as well.
As a regional manager at a major brokerage firm, Michael had been working on his own leadership skills for several years, but despite his efforts, his retail branch region had been consistently ranked last or second to last in his company’s employee opinion survey, and in this rare company where surveys are taken seriously—the results are published and ranked—this was bad news for Michael’s career. He was losing his credibility as a manager. Then he had the epiphany. Even though the surveys specifically reflected the views of front-line branch employees whose lives were affected by their immediate supervisors, Michael assumed that he was the problem, not the supervisors. Just allowing himself that realization was a risky endeavor: suddenly, responsibility rested squarely on Michael’s already sore shoulders, the Blame Game was no longer an option, and he launched himself irrevocably into do-or-die mode. Then he cranked up the risk factor one more notch.
He gathered his management team together, stood up in front of the conference room and said, “I’m screwing up; the numbers show it, so I want you to tell me what I’m doing wrong and what I need to do to improve. “I’m going to leave the room,” he went on, “and I’d like you to get very specific and write down your ideas on flip-chart paper. When I come back, we’ll talk through each item.” And he walked out. A half-hour later he came back and knocked on the door. “We’re not done yet,” they said. Finally, after ninety minutes, they let him in. All the walls were covered in flip-chart paper: list after list of suggestions for his personal improvement as a human being. He kept his balance, took a deep breath and proceeded to rule number three: Accept What You Hear (And Show It) Michael knew that his reaction in that moment would make or break the whole exercise, as well as his personal credibility. So he took a radical approach and responded authentically. “I’m really disappointed,” he said, “in myself. I had no idea there’d be so much.” He didn’t defend, justify, or make excuses. All he did was ask some questions to make sure he fully understood each item, and they talked together for the next couple of hours. Imagine the intestinal fortitude that Michael needed to keep that conversation going for that long. “And another thing, boss…” was said more than once, I’m sure.
And then, at the end of the day, with rolls of flip chart paper tucked under his arms and a pounding sensation behind his eyes, Michael looked at his team and said two words straight from the heart: “Thank you.”
That night and the next couple of days, Michael told me, were the most difficult of his entire career. He was devastated and overwhelmed by the severity of the feedback and the immense challenge to follow through. He recovered from the initial shock, however, and went on to rule number four: Do Something About It Nobody expected Michael to start at the top of list one, item one and start fixing them all. But they saw him try. He proved through his own actions that the session hadn’t been a consultant-assigned exercise that he had been forced into tolerating.
The next round of surveys ranked Michael’s organization second from the top in the entire company, with jumps of eighty to ninety percent in some measures. That’s a radical leap no matter how you look at it, but the funny thing is, the improvement had relatively little to do with Michael’s follow-up actions. It had everything to do with his team.
Without his asking them to, Michael’s managers—inspired by the experience—went back to their branches and did the same thing with their folks. And for the first time, employees were personally engaged in the improvement of their own work environment.
By publicly seeking extreme feedback Michael not only jump-started his organization, he blasted his own career into orbit: as his reputation as a leader spread, he was promoted—with the near-unanimous recommendation of his direct reports—to take responsibility for the entire US branch office operations.
Michael desired to hear the truth, and he put himself in harm’s way in order to do so. He accepted the barrage with an open mind and heart and then went to work to right the wrongs. He started out attempting to improve his leadership skills, and ended up setting a new standard of communication throughout the organization.
That’s not just leadership; that’s Extreme Leadership. Now grab a stack of flipcharts, gather your team and give it a try.
About Steve Farber:
Steve Farber, former Vice President and “Official Mouthpiece” of the Tom Peters Company, has educated and inspired thousands of people throughout the world in the areas of leadership, service quality, reinvention, and teamwork. Steve left TPC in November of 2000 to establish his own practice, and in June of 2001—in recognition of his contributions to the culture, growth and intellectual capital of the firm—he was honored with the designation of Tom Peters Company Fellow.
To learn more about Steve Farber and Extreme Leadership, please visit his website at http://www.stevefarber.com, or contact him directly at
858-513-4184 or email@example.com.
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