Do You Have a People Problem or a Leadership Problem?

By Cathy McCullough

Organizaitonal Diagnostics: Do You Have a People Problem or a Leadership Problem?

I love organizational diagnostics. It’s probably one of my favorite things to do because I love getting to root Organizaitonal Diagnostics: Do You Have a People Problem or a Leadership Problem?causes instead of merely addressing superficial symptoms. Working to alleviate the root causes of something allows me to add value to my clients and to my work as a whole. Plus, I love the journey of dissecting what’s happening and developing a strategy to heal a company plagued by a disease they don’t fully understand.

My last blog was the result of so many continued questions around how to build a high performance culture. Other questions that frequently come my way center around how to handle difficult people. And then, I was having a first-time consultation with a CEO who said:

“I’ve done everything I can. Our front-line managers just don’t get it. They’re horrible. Our customer satisfaction scores stink—they’re rock bottom. We just need you to get it through their heads that customer service matters!” 

I asked a series of questions and the blame this CEO cast in his answers was absolutely amazing. He didn’t even realize how he was delivering the message; he was simply oblivious to his own words (and ensuing behaviors). It was everybody else’s fault—all through the entire consultation. Then, he said, “So, when can you get in here and have your first little session with these front-line managers?” (Yes; he said that.)

I set out to dissect and review all the symptoms of what was going on. This encompassed a series of one-on-one interviews with the front-line managers as well as with the executive team. Three key points that emerged (overwhelmingly):

  • Front-line managers saw the CEO as demeaning and critical; he cast such a shadow of fear that everyone was scared to do much of anything, as nothing seemed to please him.
  • The executive team fell right along with him. They played up to him and even praised him as one of the best CEOs they’d had in a long time because he wasn’t afraid to hold people accountable. They liked his style and even gave great acclaim to his approach.
  • No one knew what they were supposed to be doing except to do a better job at caring for customers. There was no vision, no plan, no roadmap. 

The result? This company’s people felt totally beat up. They were tired, exhausted. They were only inspired to do what most of them were attempting to do: Find another job. Should it really surprise anyone that productivity was at an all-time low in this company? And when productivity suffers this much, it’s no wonder their customer satisfaction scores were tanking.

I had the honor of going back to the CEO and his executive team with the findings of my diagnostic evaluation, where I said to them, “You don’t have a customer service problem. You have a leadership problem.” The prescription began there, with the executive team in that room. Fix that and, with time, your customer service problem will go away. 

How do you know if you have a ‘people’ problem or a ‘leadership’ problem? It takes a great deal of introspection, but here are a few things to look for and consider as you reflect on your own leadership. 

You might have a leadership problem instead of a people problem if…

  • You’re a “Boss” vs. a “Coach.” The leadership team in the scenario shared in this blog literally told their front-line managers what to do and how to do it. They were micro-managing bosses in every sense of the word. Shouting orders to “fix it!” or pointing fingers of blame is not the right definition of accountability. If you’re a boss, you make excuses so you can remain a micro-manager. For instance, “I’m just a detail kind of person…that’s all…” or “So and So was a great CEO and she was accused of being a micro-manager, too…” or, “Our customer sat. scores are so bad, and since you’re the cause of it, then thank goodness I’m willing to step in to tell you how to do what you need to do to improve those scores!” Bosses rarely build high performance environments. Coaches, though, build a sense of team and a deep seeded sense of camaraderie. 
  • You don’t track “Regrettable Turnover.” This company didn’t even look at regrettable turnover. Yet, tracking regrettable turnover is the only way to know how many A Players (those you don’t want to lose) are leaving. Regrettable turnover can write a really interesting story about the leadership of your organization. It might be that you hire A Players but your leadership style simply doesn’t allow you to sustain them for the long-term. Or you tend to hire C Players because they don’t threaten you—but not much gets done to the level that you might like which becomes, then, another point of your own frustration. 
  • You don’t communicate well with people. Your people have no idea what the company’s Top 3 Annual Initiatives are, much less what the current Quarterly Priorities are. Your people don’t understand the context of your strategic intent. They’re simply left to figure it all out on their own. Or, if you’re trying to course correct to solve a problem (such as horrid customer satisfaction scores), they don’t understand the role they play in helping lift the company toward the success of meeting that goal or target. Help people see their place in your company and co-create solutions with them. 
  • You “manage” vs. “lead.” Whether your company has annual appraisals or quarterly appraisal touchpoints or monthly appraisal conversations, you don’t have time. Annually, quarterly, monthly—it simply doesn’t matter. You don’t have the time to have any of these conversations. “I’m busy.” (Which, by the way, results in your not knowing your people. So you probably avoid these touchpoints, too, because you have absolutely no idea of what a person’s strengths or weaknesses are.) Get to know your people; be a resource for them. Jointly sit down with people and use a tool, such as a Job Scorecard, to co-create shared understanding and mutual respect. 
  • You’re quick to blame others or a situation that arose or whatever, vs. taking personal accountability for something being late or not coming to fruition or not moving forward as it should.
  • You love (love!) your title. Or, you have a personal vision of getting to the next title. It’s all about your title and the position that goes with it. It defines your very being (if you can be honest with yourself). 
  • You’re always traveling. Traveling a lot is fine if you turn the reigns over to someone else to make key decisions, to be the ‘go to’ person while you’re out, so that things can keep moving. When you’re in the office, though, you don’t have time for the people that need you the most. They’re trying to help you do what you do—but you don’t give them the time they need to do that. Translation: “I tell you you’re important to me, but you’re not.” Be accessible when you’re in the office. Chunk your time so that you have some concentrated time to do what you need to do, but remember that one important piece of your time should be connecting with your people.
  • You procrastinate when it comes to making key decisions. While this might seem justified in the moment, your leadership becomes a problem. Don’t blame others for the confusion that comes from your inability to make decisions in a timely manner. 
  • You love your "to do" lists, and you love doing items on your "to do" list. That makes you feel productive. But as a core leader, your job is to also provide inspiration to those around you. Your working through all your tasks on your list isn’t inspiring. 
  • You spend little to no time developing yourself as a leader. (Or else you go to workshops or you have an Executive Coach—whatever—but it’s more because this was something “to do” on your task list.) Get really serious about facing one key thing that you need to do differently to become a more effective leader. Do this each week or each month, or perhaps work on one leadership quality per quarter. 
  • Your communication isn’t effective. Many times, the issues you have with people are your own fault due to your own poor communication style. You may truly think you delivered a clear message, but always check for understanding by having people share with you what your message was vs. getting frustrated when people don’t seem to be doing what you need them to do. You’ll find that many times your people problems really aren’t people problems.
  • You aren’t very approachable. How many times do people come to you and ask for your thoughts, ideas, reflections, insights? How many times are you sought out?
  • You can’t share your toys. If someone wants to be a part of something you’re doing, you always say “no” because you have to get the glory. Sharing is just hard for you. What is something you do (or desire to do) that you hold near and dear to your heart? Who can you include in that journey? 
  • You’re too busy to deal with people that don’t perform. Or you have a serious discussion with these people, but those discussions are all wrong; they’re too blunt and direct, and you give the person the list of what s/he needs to do differently, or the conversations are vague and simply aren’t well managed. Get really good at having the hard discussions that need to be had.
  • Your strategy isn’t clear. You might create an Annual Plan but it goes by the wayside as the year progresses. You don’t have time for Weekly Adjustment Meetings, where the team talks about what’s going well, what’s not going well, potential solutions, adjustments that need to be made, what roadblocks need to be removed, etc.
  • You have an issue with delegation in that you either don’t do it OR you do it way too much (in which case you abdicate vs. delegate). 

If you have too many of these issues yourself or if other leaders in your company have them, then the solutions to your company’s problems might not be what they seem. The core issue may well be a leadership problem. Fix that, and you’ll be well on your way to repairing the key issue(s) that plague your company. 

(Need to fix a leadership problem? Begin by having the difficult conversations you need to have—both with yourself and with other leaders in your company. See my prior blog, Five Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion, to jump-start your efforts.)

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Cathy McCullough


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