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Kenneth W. Keller: Managers: It’s time to provide leadership or leave

Brain Food for Business People

Posted: February 16, 2010 8:13 p.m.
Updated: February 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
When a company is underperforming, the owner looks first at the employees for improvement and not in the mirror. The employees, however, look to the owner for leadership.  

A phenomenon often occurs when people hit difficult times. When a person does not know what to do, and they have never experienced anything like what they are facing or going through, they freeze. They do nothing. They become immobile.

But after a time, a thaw slowly starts, the brain begins to work — slowly at first, coming up with options, goals, plans and decisions — and then finally action steps are taken.  

This is what has happened to many owners the past couple of years. Those who hunkered down in a siege mentality are now moving forward. For the record, no action by any government agency — including TARP money and stimulus funds — has anything to do with what is taking place. The progress is organic, akin to bears wakening from hibernation.

When the thaw accelerates, owners should be able to turn to their management team for help. These individuals are an extension of ownership; setting the tone and maintaining the culture.

The owner should not be asking for help in a vacuum; if information is shared regularly with the management team about how the company is doing, managers should be stepping up to the challenge before the owner has to say anything.

Unfortunately, in many companies management is kept in the dark about what is happening financially and otherwise and must rely on the mood of the owner to determine how things are going. This is a sad but accurate commentary.

Turning around a company requires people to be highly engaged. Many managers don’t realize the drastic changes in business in the past couple of years; they see it as something affecting another part of the country like a flood or a snowstorm. More than 8 million jobs have disappeared in the United States, most never to return. A good portion of those jobs were management positions.

Managers who insist on sticking with the “way we have always done things” fail to see this as a recipe for disaster. The “good old days” are a distant memory, however fondly remembered.

Not only do pennies count these days, so do seconds. The companies that can respond faster to the needs of clients and prospects will get the business. Those that don’t may not survive.  

Without engaged managers setting positive examples every day, things will go from bad to worse at the employee level at a time when the company can least afford it.

Managers who aren’t willing, able, capable or interested in leading by example should be terminated as quickly as possible. It is hard to believe that such people actually have jobs, but many do.

Why is this? Having one lousy manager in a company is poison. Having more than one is a pandemic. It makes no difference how long the manager has been employed, what their relationship is to the owner, how good they used to be, the amount of their paycheck or what their potential is. What matters is what they are doing today.

A bad manager is a bad manager, and every day a bad manager stays on the payroll is another day that every employee thinks “If that manager can get away with doing so-and-so, so can I.”

This means in a time when every employee needs to be doing his or her best to turn things around, the bad manager is working against that effort.

Terminating a bad manager will send shock waves through an organization. Instantaneously productivity will increase. As soon as the word gets out, employees will come to the realization that, “If they fired so-and-so, they can fire me too,” and behavior at work will improve.

There will be fewer cases of tardiness. Employees will talk less and work more.

There will be less chitchat around the office, fewer extended breaks or long lunches and less time surfing the Web when employees are supposed to be working. Meetings will be shorter and more focused. Employees will follow up when they are supposed to.

Employees will get the message that no one is untouchable.

Being a manager is not easy, and being a manager is not for everyone. That’s the role of management in turning around a company ­— stepping up to the job they are on the payroll to do.

And if they cannot do that, it is time to move on to a new employer.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Brain Food for Business People” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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