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Elevating Excellence

As the leader, it is your job to give direction and then send your team off to implement

 Early on, during one of our stage play tours, my boss did me a great favor. He got up in front of the staff and explained that if I told them something, I was speaking for him. It is my job to keep him in the loop on what I do and what I am planning. But it is also my job to make decisions and get things done.

Over time, the team gets a good feel for what the boss wants to have input on and what he or she wants the staff to just do. With clear lines of communication and a little time and trust, everyone will develop a good sense of where the proper lines are.

One additional and related problem occurs when the leader holds too much power—the staff will have a tendency to only bring problems to the pastor for him or her to solve. Again, why have staff if that is all that they do? Tell your staff that when they bring you a problem to also bring their ideas for solving the problem. You want to develop a staff that takes the initiative and brings solutions along with the problem. You want a team that offers fresh perspective and contributes meaningfully to critical discussions.

As I mentioned previously, one of my favorite television shows is The West Wing. It stars Martin Sheen and is about how the president and his senior staff interact. It offers great lessons in leadership and how a team should work together to achieve a common purpose. Lively discussions are an ongoing happening as staff members debate and argue for their positions. The point is not to fight but to try to find the right or at least the best answer you can. Just as the issues that get resolved by the president and his staff are, by definition, some of the world’s biggest problems, the issues that get resolved by the senior pastor and his senior staff are likewise the biggest issues facing the church. If the decisions are easy, the lower level staff is not doing their job.

Like the staff of The West Wing, you want your staff to be able to argue and debate and problem-solve, all without taking it personally. If two of your top staffers can’t have an argument over a course of action and then go to lunch happy, they are not right for the job. Real senior executives can separate the two things. They recognize that just because someone else has a different idea doesn’t mean that it is a bad idea. This includes the ability to debate and discuss options with the boss. Your staff must be able to articulate what they think.

A vital characteristic in a senior executive is the ability to tell truth to power.  At first blush, you probably think, of course my staff is honest—and they are. The issue is the ability to respectfully disagree with the leader and be able to articulate why.

One of my favorite television shows is The West Wing. (If you haven’t seen it, it is about the interactions of the president of the United States and his senior staff.) In the show, it is very common for the senior staff to debate the merits of a particular course of action in front of the president. The president then uses that input and debate (pro and con) in making his decision. Oftentimes, that debate involves taking a position you believe to be right, knowing that the president likely disagrees. In one great episode, a new member of the staff was sent into the Oval Office to discuss some action that he was told the president wanted to take, but which the new staff member knew was the wrong thing to do. In reality (or the reality of the show), the president didn’t want to take the proposed course of action. The entire exercise was a test to see if the new guy on staff would tell the president he was wrong. That is telling truth to power. Your staff is useless if they won’t do it. You need independent thinkers who will contribute to the dialogue and debate and help the organization’s leader find the right answer.

You need independent thinkers who will help the leader find the right answer.

Just as important as truth-telling to power is the ability of your staff to have the debate and when it is over and the decision has been made, for everyone to say, “Great, let’s go get it done!” without any feelings about who won or lost the debate. It is not about winning or losing or personal agendas. It is about a team all contributing the value of their expertise to assist a leader in making the final decision.

If your people have a hard time embracing decisions they didn’t make or decisions they didn’t agree with, you are going to have a management problem. While management by consensus can be effective, at the end of the day decisions have to be made, respected, and acted upon. The goal, at the end of the day, is results. The success of the team and the results achieved by the team are far more important than bruised egos.

Lots of ministers spend a huge amount of time and effort telling their congregations about how to be empowered in their lives financially, spiritually, and otherwise. However, too many churches fail to adequately empower their own teams. It is “Management 101” that people who are not empowered are not effective. People need to feel like they are empowered to act (within certain boundaries) if they are to be at their best. Every job, no matter how low on the totem pole, needs to involve some level of discretion—I may be sweeping the floors, but I should be the one deciding how to best sweep the floors as long as I can get it done with excellence.

As you move up the ladder to senior leadership, the level of discretion should increase with the level of the employee and his or her track record.

The problem that all too many leaders face is that they do not know how to let go. They want to make every decision and solve every problem. Oftentimes this need to control has roots in the fact that as he or she was starting out, the pastor by necessity had to do everything because there was no one else. The pastor became accustomed to doing it all. Then as the organization grew and staff was added, the pastor’s instincts took over and he or she didn’t use the staff he or she had.

When the leader micromanages and makes all of the decisions, the staff has no say and no power.  As a result, two things happen. First, the good people will leave. If I can’t use my brain, I will not be fulfilled as a person and I will go somewhere where I get that fulfillment. The next thing that will happen is nothing. The remaining staff will not act. Why? Because there is no incentive for them to do so.

Time and time again, I have gone in to advise churches only to find that everything pointed back to the pastor. No one had any authority, and as a result, no one really did anything. Everyone simply waited for the pastor to make a decision, and a huge bureaucratic bottleneck was created. No one felt empowered to make a decision without having the boss on board.

I recognize that there needs to be a balance here. Clearly, as the leader you need and want to be informed, updated, and in the loop. However, there is a difference between being informed and making every decision. Your executives should be telling you what they are doing and why (and you have the prerogative to reverse them if you disagree), but they should be doing, not waiting for you. If your top executives will not act, why have them? If your staff just brings you problems to solve, why have them?

As part of this process, you will need to develop with your most senior team members clear delineations of power. Obviously, all really big decisions need to be decided on the leader’s desk. The critical word here is big.  Your staff needs to keep everything other than significant decisions off your desk. As the leader, it is your job to give direction and then send your team off to implement. Then those items that come to your desk should be only the most important and complex organization impacting.

Part of motivating any team is actually doing something. Organizations that get stuck in paralysis by analysis—or worse, a simple inability to create the inertia needed to act—will drive good people away. People, especially cause-oriented people, want to see things happen in a deliberate manner. People want to be associated with winners who are moving forward—not organizations dying a slow death.

A related issue arises with regard to problem people. The simple fact is the greatest executive in the world may not be suited to be a member of your team. A team has to be just that—a team. In some cases, a great executive doesn’t want to be a part of a team and needs to go do his or her own thing. In other cases, personal issues, integrity issues, outside distractions, etc., can get in the way of good employees acting that way. However it happens, problem employees are a big issue. The problem too often is worsened by an organization that sucks its thumb instead of doing something about it.

I subscribe largely to the Jack Welch views on employment. A significant part of a leader’s time should be used identifying, developing, and motivating good employees. Oftentimes, when an employee is not a fit in a particular job, the organization should make every effort to find the right situation for that employee—either within or outside of the organization. Also, leaders need to be clear with employees about how they are doing. This is hugely difficult to do. But we owe it to our employees.

However, when it becomes clear that an employee does not fit and is not a valued member of team (for whatever reason), act quickly and decisively. It is all too easy to put on the pastor’s hat, hug the employee, and hope things get better. They rarely do.

I recently read a biography on Warren Buffet called Snowball. In the book, it was clear that Buffet hated confrontation and hated firing people. He is known for buying companies with good managements and letting them run the business. However, good management occasionally goes bad. Buffet learned the hard way a few times that “thumb-sucking” (doing nothing and hoping a problem goes away) does not work. It is best to act quickly and decisively to confront problem people.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this. Remember, good teams are made up of people with options. If those other team members feel like you are going to leave bad apples in place, the good ones will leave to get a better environment. Now you have two problems instead of one problem, and the snowball is starting downhill.

In addition, the problem employee will inevitably begin to cause problems outside of your organization. Bad people are noticed and will create a negative impression of your organization and you.

I recently encountered this issue in one of our business partnerships. We had been having difficulty working through our partner’s legal department to get contracts done and checks written. Worse, one of our partner’s lawyers was sending off offensive emails that made me question whether to terminate the deal (which could be lucrative for us and our partner). After digging into everything, I found out that this company’s legal department had caused them to lose other deals before our partner fixed the problem. It will be difficult to earn back the money that was lost and even harder for our partner to regain their industry reputation. The lesson is clear.

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