Tagged ‘leadership‘

Treachery at Work

As a consultant, I need to tune in to organizational dynamics fast. Why? Because I need to be able to maneuver the relationships and politics in order to get my job done.

That sounds cold and it is. My #1 priority, though, whenever a group hires me for something important, is to make sure my product is as good as it can possibly be. Getting it tangled up in an organization’s peculiar toxic environment is a negative. It will impede my progress and affect quality.

So in my travels and in my own employment history (yes, there was life before consulting), I’ve seen many organizations with very dysfunctional internal cultures, many of which would meet anyone’s criteria for toxic workplace.

What does treachery at work look like? It looks like this: unreasonable and changing expectations, poor or no communication, blatant favoritism, high school style cliques, blindsiding, blaming, dismissing, marginalizing, taking credit for other people’s work, gossip, the silent treatment. Shall I stop there?

What is a person to do in this type of environment?

Here’s the most important thing, the absolute must for a person who finds him/herself in a poisonous organizational stew. Don’t be a victim. Give yourself the same advice you would give your son or daughter about coping with bullies on the playground. The bully wins if you act afraid. Or if you begin to believe the bully’s taunts.

Stick with the process. A key element of a treacherous workplace is that so much of what goes on is out of the public eye. Deals are made, understandings reached, plots hatched with only some people in the know and everyone else wondering.  Sticking with the process means always forcing deliberation and decisions to the public venue and, once there, advocating for an open, honest discussion, and insisting on this over and over again until colleagues comply.

Remember you are a professional person with top-notch skills and great experience. That’s your mantra. If you then take your mantra to the high road and stay there, you will be in good shape. Is that difficult to do? Absolutely.

By being the person who sticks to the high road, you offer an example to others who wish they had your courage. Sometimes this can begin to change the culture, sometimes not. It’s very wearing to be a principled person in an environment where others seem to have lost their moral compass. But even if you end up leaving an organization because it is simply too toxic to continue, you will carry your professional integrity and self-respect with you. Those are qualities you truly can take to the bank!

Organizations that allow treachery at work limit their own success. Don’t let treachery at work limit your success!


A very helpful overview of toxic workplace issues and strategies is provided by Amy Scholten, M.P.H. in “10 Signs That Your Workplace is Toxic and What You should Do About It.”

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What Harvard Taught Me About M.O.M.’s

Several years ago, I attended a two-week community development seminar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  It was an extraordinary experience, walking to class across the Harvard campus, watching and hearing the rowers on the Charles River, meeting with my study group to review that day’s ‘case’ and then spending the day in class as probably the smartest people I ever met dissected the case to illustrate critical points in community development.  The case study is a principal means of instruction at Harvard.  It’s very engaging and incredibly effective.  Having a real story used to illustrate abstract principles makes all the difference. 

One of the abstract principles we addressed frequently was leadership.  What constitutes leadership?  How does one become a leader?  How do leaders affrect communities?

It came down to this in the view of our speaker.  Great community change resulted from the single minded, tireless efforts of a M.O.M.  Of course, all of us actual Moms in the audience quickly nodded in agreement but the speaker wasn’t talking about us.  He was recalling Peter Drucker’s statement in Adventures of a Bystander, “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.”

One writer described M.O.M.’s this way:  “A good champion is passionate about their cause or change.  He or she is a staunch, zealous fanatic.  A great champion is emotional, irrational, irreverent, impatient, and unreasonable.  He or she wants the change – no matter how big – to happen this week, this month, or certainly by the end of this quarter.  To an impassioned change champion (M.O.M.), the sky is often falling and the situation is desperately urgent.” (Jim Clemmer, Nurturing Change Champions, ManagerWise, 2001)

What’s making me think about M.O.M.’s?  Frankly, it was the death of Joan Lawrence, director of Our Space and the person who was probably, nearly single-handedly responsible for the development of the peer specialist movement in Milwaukee and was the prime mover behind the Crisis Resource Center.  Relentless, intense, undeterred, and unwilling to negotiate much of the time, Joan made enemies and turned a lot of people off.  But she changed the landscape of mental health services in Milwaukee for the better in a big way.  Joan really was the epitome of a M.O.M.

I know a couple of other M.O.M.’s.  Married to one of them – Howard Snyder.  Howard’s single-minded focus on the need to keep and improve the public library on Villard Avenue resulted in our granddaughter having an amazingly cheery, friendly, well-resourced, and NEW library on that same street.  She sits next to dozens of young people, families, and older adults as they swarm into the library on Saturday mornings.  It’s amazing.  Before the library, he zeroed in rehabbing an abandoned firestation, started NOVA (Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy), an MPS partnership school, in collaboration with area industrialists, and moved his nonprofit into the massive DRS Naval Controls Division plant in order to build a workforce alliance that would employ neighborhood people in defense jobs.  When he turns his sights on something, we know that’s going to be IT for focus for the next several years.

Terri Strodthoff, founder of the Alma Center, would go on the M.O.M. list.  A bigger believer in the capacity of men involved in domestic violence would be impossible to find.  Rich Oulahan, prime mover of Esperanza Unida into a model of worker training that continues today, is another one on the list;  his death left a huge legacy for Milwaukee’s southside and the whole community.

There is something so different about M.O.M.’s.  Often hard to tolerate, their intensity can drive some people away from their cause.  But their single-minded devotion and relentlessness gets results that organizations absorbed in strategic planning and rational decision-making can’t achieve.  M.O.M.’s are willing to be unreasonable and undeterred in pursuit of a dream for the community. That is precious and rare and we need to appreciate M.O.M.’s when we have one in our midst.

And that’s what Harvard taught me about M.O.M.’s.


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Women and Leadership: We’re Still Not There

Women are better leaders but poor self-promotors.  That’s the conclusion of a study of 7,280 leaders done in 2011 and discussed in a recent Forbes article. They’re better than men at taking initiative and driving for results.  I think this is a hoot since those are characteristics that have been perceived as so exclusively male.  At last, research confirms what I know from watching powerful women handle tough groups and challenging projects.

Women know how to get things done.  They know how to push a project to completion and usually know how to keep a team intact and focused.  What they haven’t figured out and what the author of this piece points out is how to play the ‘getting ahead’ game within an organization. 

Two things are at play here.  First, I think women are very performance-based and they tend to think that rewards will follow good performance.  Second, I think most women are blind to the enduring influence of male social networks (using the term Old Boys Club would be inflammatory).  The going out for drinks after work, playing golf, being in the same softball league, hey, even the constant talking about sports – these are the ties that bind for men.  So when a man in a position to promote thinks about who to promote, he thinks about his friend.  He’s not necessarily discounting the woman’s experience and skill, he just knows the guy better and feels in his gut that he can trust him.

Meanwhile, the unpromoted woman is counting up all the extra projects and hours, the accolades, and the recognition and she is wondering what happened here?  She is discounting the male bonding that’s been going on while she’s scrambling to pick up the kids at day care (yes, I know, men also pick up kids from day care) but worrying about kids, dinner, grocery-shopping, all of that end of the day business is still mostly  in the mom’s job description. 

For a long time, I think women figured that if they could get in the door, they could rise to the top through great performance.  That is sometimes true, but it isn’t the norm, otherwise, we wouldn’t think a female executive of a major corporation is all that noteworthy.  However, we are still seeing headlines about someone being the first woman to run a large corporation.  This morning’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinal ran an article on the business page about Pat Kampling, the first woman to run a Wisconsin utility corporation and, as the paper said, one of a handful of female top executives in the State. 

So much has changed for women in the last thirty years. It’s easy to lose sight of that.  But so much is the same.  The in-group, the clique, the network — it loves its own and marginalizes outsiders.  That’s a sociological fact from the ages.  How to bust open that closed, subtle, amorphous web is the big question.  Or, better yet, how can we replace the old network with a new one that has a lot of doors and windows – an airy, transparent place  where everyone can hang out.  That’d be great.


Here’s the link to the Forbes article:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal article:

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10 Steps to Successful Collaboration

1.  Have one when you need one.  Is there a pressing need?  Is a collaborative effort the best way to respond?  If the cause is too small, people won’t participate for long.
2.  Start where you are.  Use what you have.  Do what you can.  Don’t wait for perfection.  Action creates action. Don’t underestimate the power of a group of committed, talented people.
3.  Remember that three people make a circle.  Three people/organizations can change how business is done. Each has to have the authority to commit agency resources.  Each has to be willing to invest time, money, and credibility.
4.  Come through on small things.  Return phone calls. Provide information.  Coordinate schedules. Be honest. Be fully present and participating. Work on your relationships with people – in and out of the collaborative.
5.  Meet with a purpose.  Set a clear goal. Bring your organization’s value to the collaborative. Organize meetings to move toward the goal. People’s time is precious. Focus on getting traction for the next step.  Keep records. Consolidate gains and move on.
6.  Share leadership.  Every member speaks.  Every member has homework. Every member invests something. Every member votes.
7.  Create meaningful products.  Products can be proposals, policies, resources, research.  Collaborative owns the product, not individual members.  Focus on win/win products. No organization should be put in a lesser position because of its decision to collaborate.
8.  Seize opportunities to grow.  Collaboration makes big projects possible. Consider less money, better odds on funding proposals.  Work with the group to  jump ‘out of the box.’ Make the collaborative the force to deal with on your issue.
9.  Welcome new people as equals.  Make newcomers into oldtimers by giving them important work to do. Be aware of core group/fringe group issues.  Explain, explain, explain and then listen, listen, listen.  What was isn’t what will be. New people bring new value to the group.
10.  Commit to shared outcomes.  The happiest marriages start in a ‘new house.’  Focus on the outcomes that really matter to the collaborative.  Invest in shared measurement and reporting.  Welcome the community’s reaction, criticism, support, and investment.

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