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Friday, July 15, 2011

Leading Through Your Failures

I came on board at Thomas Nelson in April 2001.  There was a lot wrong with the overall HR program for a lot of reasons (no body's fault in my estimation; just a dysfunctional evolution), which was why I was recruited.  The one thing that was going right was payroll, and by May of 2001 I had managed to screw that up pretty well.

We were closing all operations except Plano, TX and Nashville.  To do that required that we consolidate payroll processing from four ADP processing centers in four different regions of the country into one center in Atlanta.  We had a new payroll person and we didn't know what we didn't know.

The first pay date after going live with the consolidation we had 265 messed-up paychecks.  The ADP center in Atlanta, we would come to find out, trained its people on small accounts like ours.  Our instructions weren't followed and we didn't know how to find that out before the line formed outside our door. One fateful week all sales commissions were coded as "Christmas club" which is a benefit we don't have, so tens of thousands of dollars in compensation floated around cyberspace before bouncing back to us four days later. Meanwhile people needed their money and couldn't get it.  Let's just say they weren't charitable and understanding.

So here I was, "new guy" here to shake things up, and all the keepers of the status quo who opposed change were enjoying our misery a little too much.  Some of those included members of the staff I'd inherited.

So I called the staff into my office and I told them, "We screwed up, we need to understand how it happened and how to fix it, but fix it we will.  We have the talent, we'll find the resources and we'll fix it.  And, if you or anybody you know is enjoying this too much l have a message: Enjoy it while you can because you won't be able to enjoy it much longer."

Now I'll admit that I stole that from Coach Jackie Sherrill who was at Texas A&M when I was in grad school.  He got the richest coaching contract in the history of college sports at that time, won three games his first year, and used those words to put the Southwest Conference on notice.  In Year Two he went to the Cotton Bowl.  So while not original, it worked.  Here's why:

1.  When you lead a team that fails, job #1 is to acknowledge the failure.  You can't fix something until you call it by name and know what needs to be fixed.

2.  You can't tell the team "they" failed; it has to be "we" failed.  You are in charge so you get most of the blame anyway, and if you are seen as throwing blame on your staff in time of crisis you have just lost your credibility and ability to lead.

3. You must be defiant in the face of failure. If you accept the failure and become resolved to defeat so will your team, and your days in charge are numbered.

4.  Enroll everyone in the analysis of the failure and in the solution.  The team has to own both the problem and the solution before they can share in the success of overcoming and winning again. If they won't, the professional naysayers and cynics have to go.

5.  Do what it takes to fix the problem and win.  Nothing makes you look strong as a leader like winning. Conversely no amount of sound leadership theory makes you look good to a losing team.

Once we discovered that we didn't have reliable contacts at ADP we hired our own former ADP processor.  She worked within our team to reset our program and also rode ADP's Atlanta staff hard until they lived up to their contract.  She also educated me about how ADP worked and pointed out that my newly hired in-house payroll processor was inept.  We replaced the in-house processor, overspent our budget by $98,000 (and forfeited my bonus for the year) but we reset the payroll and HR programs like we set out to do.

Too often managers, especially in Christian organizations, don't want to speak the hard truth of, "We failed."  They don't want to lose face, or they don't want to deal with the conflict if team members can't or won't respond to their leadership.  This is absolutely the wrong thing to do.  You won't win all the time, and when you lose your team can't fix what they don't know is broken.  Be brave, fear not, and a little humility never hurt a manager or minister. Unless you think you are always going to win, this is a career strategy you need to master.

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