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The Road Signs of Leadership

Wouldn’t it be great if your employees displayed easy to read and easy to understand signs? These signs would indicate how they are reacting to your new program or what they are thinking about your actions as a leader.

Just like traffic signs give us information, employees provide signs that give us information too. But employees are often subtle and hard to interpret, or we are not tuned in to looking for the signals, so we miss them. Let’s look at some of the signs your employees might be displaying. Your ability to tune in to these messages and adjust your activity will lead to success as you reach toward your objectives.

Speed Limit 70

This is a good sign to see. Your employees are fully on board with your program or plan and actively support it. They understand the mission and are aligned with it. When asked to explain what the leader is trying to accomplish, they respond in the proper fashion, almost as if it were their own plan. At 70 mph there is still time to react to sudden dangers, to make mid-course corrections, and to interact with other stakeholders. This sign is characterized by a unity of purpose, a dedication to the mission, a sense of urgency, and a willingness to be creative.

Don’t confuse this sign with a situation in which there is no speed limit at all. While we want our employees to be productive, moving full speed ahead, they must know what they are working toward and, when possible, have a hand in crafting the vision.

Stop

When your employees give you the stop sign, you have simply gone too far too fast and they are unable to follow you for now. They need something to be able to continue. You need to determine what that something is. They cannot or will not continue until you adjust what you are doing. This adjustment is difficult. First, you have to recognize that they are showing the stop sign, then you have to figure out why. Often that means you must take time to ask questions, a skill in itself, to get their input. In some cases, they may need a simple clarification, but in other cases, they may not agree with your course of action and you will need to persuade them to adopt what you want to do. In some cases, they may require training, while in others, they may need simple reassurance. The best way to get them moving depends on the reason they indicated for you to stop in the first place. A big mistake leaders make is not even seeing the stop sign. A bigger mistake is ignoring it, if seen, since the leader thinks the current course is best and that the employees will follow soon enough. To ignore the stop sign invites danger.

Yield

Slow down; you are moving too fast. Your employees are not at a standstill here, but they are unable to fully support you. This sign means it’s time for active listening on your part. Again, you need to question people and react accordingly to get them up to speed. There can be several reasons for this sign. It is often seen in the downsized, fast-track world of today. “Yield” on the road means there are things coming together and you need to give way to the others to avoid a collision. In organizations, this potential collision can come from multiple agendas and multiple priorities.

Detour

This sign says the employees are working their own plan and — although they support the ultimate goal you have articulated (a successful project) — they are not using the means and methods you want to use to get there. As organizations adapt to changing market demands and implement new procedures, this situation is increasingly problematic. A glaring example is the senior employee who delivers profitable work but leaves a wrecked relationship with the other stakeholders – internal and external. The company professes to value integrity and caring, long-term relationships, but it does nothing when this person “does what it takes” to make money and trashes relationships.

Another manager may be great at producing work. However, he is stifling growth and initiative by his “my way or the highway” style. Yet the company says it values creativity and development of subordinates.

In both cases, each employee has their own way of doing things and they do deliver results, but the means and methods are counter to the organization’s priorities and goals. This situation is one of the toughest a leader faces. Left alone, this conflict between values and procedures damages the credibility of the organization.

Road Closed

This is different from a stop sign. In the case of the stop sign, they are ready to move forward once you educate, clarify, or explain your intent. The road closed sign is more akin to outright insubordination and refusal to cooperate. This problem may evolve from the detour situation when an employee fails to heed your advice, exhortations, and counseling. In other cases, people may refuse to change because they do not feel you are committed to your path and will give up in a few months anyway, and then they can get back to mediocrity as usual. Unfortunately, this may happen with a small number of people.

Exit Ramp Signs

These are the big green signs with the white arrows. They tell you the next move you have to make to stay on course. In business, these signs come from people who support you and what you are trying to accomplish and want to make it better. They are on board with the means and methods and even the general direction you are taking. However, they have ideas, suggestions, and contributions to make that will ease the trip and make it better for you and your organization.

For example, three months after implementing a new system to make the handoff between sales and operations better, a line supervisor comes to you and offers some thoughts on how to improve what you have already done. The exit ramp sign is a great signal because it sends a message of commitment, interest, and understanding of the mission. However, some leaders ignore this sign because they view a modification to their plan as an admission that it was lacking in the first place. This misguided and shortsighted behavior by leaders often leads to the detour and road closed sign from the people being led.

Railroad Crossing

Danger ahead; you are doing something that is about to lead to a train wreck. Like the exit sign, the employees have information, but in this case, they are not sharing it with you and they will allow you to head right onto the tracks and crash. This sign is shown most often when the leader has previously diminished his or her credibility or refused to listen. Failure to heed this sign results in fairly large consequences. The least consequence is that somebody quits or is fired. Larger consequences include damaged reputation, unsuccessful projects, liquidated damages, claims, and litigation.

Historical Marker

These are the signs tucked on the side of the road that you notice in the corner of your eye. Sometimes we stop to read one because we have time, and there it is. Other times, we stop because we are looking for a special one. Although they are not official traffic signs, they do serve a useful purpose for the traveler. These signs tell us the history of the area we are traveling in. They give us context and a sense of perspective. In business, this sign is displayed in two basic ways. First, it is displayed by the people being led — it just appears. In the second way, we ask for it.

For example, the new executive is overseeing a fairly large and complex project that is similar to other projects he has done. However, it is in a location he has never worked. As initial planning is completed and implementation begins, a manager who has recent experience with a similar project in the same city recognizes a situation that looks and smells a lot like one on the last project — a potential “rock in the road” that may cause lost time. He doesn’t tell the new executive simply because he doesn’t think it is important because the executive didn’t ask about it — if the executive did think it was important, surely he would have mentioned it. This is a case of a historical marker just waiting to be read.

Driving on the trip

If you are new to a leadership position, there is a good chance you are missing a lot of these signs because you are overloaded with your daily tasks. However, this may be your best opportunity to look for the signs. Think back to when you first learned to drive. Initially, you were too busy operating the car to focus on the other stuff around you, but shortly after that, you were getting the hang of it. You were more aware but weren’t getting complacent yet. Teach yourself now to look for the signs as part of your daily interactions with those you lead.

If you have been in leadership positions for some time, you too may be missing the signs. Think about your own driving now that you have been doing it for years. It comes quite naturally — you relax, you even do other things while you are driving. But, do you ever miss a turn? The answer is probably “yes,” and that means you were complacent or preoccupied with something else. You missed the sign. This happens at work too. For example, suppose you were recently promoted and are busy getting ready for the strategic planning retreat for which you have some great ideas. You don’t see the railroad sign from your assistant who has been with the firm for years. When you get to the retreat, you are ill-prepared and too aggressive. Your assistant could have given you some insights on how to handle the situation and how to interact with the executive team. You missed the sign. It happens every day.

People constantly give us these signs. When we are driving on the road, we know what to look for. In the case of leadership, it’s harder to know the signs to look for, and we can easily miss them to our detriment and to the detriment of the organization. Look hard for these signs, and look for other ones. Ask questions and don’t assume. The journey a leader embarks on is fraught with challenges and perils, but the rewards are great and the payoff huge. People want to help you, if you just look for the signs.

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.

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