leadership dot #2268: vacancy

Yesterday I wrote about the closing of Younkers and while the loss of another retail outlet may not mean much for consumers who have the internet or other options, a reader shared some reflections on what it means for those who saw the store in a different light:

What does a retailer of 50 years leave behind besides an empty storefront?  What’s their legacy?

— It has employed thousands of people and taught many of them the value of hard work, maybe gave them their first supervisory experience and made them great in a role outside of retail. Many former employees are now leaders in other organizations within the community, using skills they learned from their work at Younkers.

— It leaves many employees who have worked there for years wondering “what’s next”?

— It leaves former employees feeling nostalgic. People met friends and mentors there and remember the days when it was great and yellow dot and coupon exclusions didn’t consume the department. Previous employees speak of a sense of belonging to something that was prestigious and special. Granted, they also remember late nights of inventory, chasing bats out of the store and watching shoplifters in awe, but overall most saw it as a wonderful place and are sad that all those good things are gone.

— Nonprofits also will miss the store and the programs that provided funding through their events like Community Days.

 And what will replace it? Not just to fill the square footage that is vacant in the mall, but can anything come close to what used to be?  Even if things were how they were “way back when”, would customers still want that in this day and age?

 So the mall has not only lost a major tenant but more importantly, our community (and many others with BonTon outlets) has lost a leadership factory, a community partner, a networking hub and major employer. People don’t think about that when they buy with one-click on Amazon but there is a price to be paid for everything.

Thanks for the perspective, Amy!

leadership dot #2267: exclusions

The local Younkers store went out of business yesterday – part of the liquidation of the whole BonTon retail chain. Younkers was one of the original tenants in our mall and was an anchor in its location since 1968. It was a retail giant here for 50 years, but now it is just an empty shell.

There are many reasons for the chain’s demise, but I believe that one of them was their coupon policy. They relied so heavily on drawing customers to the store because of their discount coupons but left them infuriated when the coupons did not apply to certain (seemingly most) items. The coupons brought people in, but the exclusions caused them to tune out. I found it ironic that even in their going-out-of-business sales exceptions applied.

Your organization can take a lesson from Younkers and others in this chain. While it is tempting to make grandiose promises on the front end, you are better of modifying your expectations and overdelivering on the back end. People want surprises of delight, not frustration. Give them what they expect or give them more – never less – or you may ultimately find yourself as the one being excluded.

leadership dot #2266: user manuals

After you have worked for or with someone for a while you learn their work style – and the quirks and preferences that comprise it. But why make people wait or make your colleagues guess how you do your best work?

It is becoming more popular to provide a “user manual” as part of the onboarding or transition process to help others know how to most effectively work with you. User manuals are frequently compiled with information from someone other than you – by asking current people who report to you what it is really like as one of your direct reports or colleagues. A user manual shares information about how you prefer to work with people and preferences that may help new staff to know about your style right from the beginning rather than after months of experience.

An example of some of the comments from a direct report that are included in my user manual:

  • She believes that nothing is sacred…meaning that just because we’ve done something a certain way, it’s encouraged to ask why or offer a new solution.
  • She makes decisions…sometimes too quickly, which can be frustrating when it’s not the decision you want. However, you can make your case and she will listen. 
  • She is extremely organized, and always follows through. I have NEVER met someone who follows up like she does. If she asks you to do something, she will hold you accountable to it.

Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote about compiling a user manual and suggests asking others these questions when you are gathering information:

  • What brings out the best in me?
  • What brings out the worst in me?
  • What do you see as my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are my blind spots?
  • If tomorrow was your first day working with me, what information about my personality would help you work with me more effectively?

 Overall, compiling a user manual is an enlightening experience – it’s both fascinating to hear how others describe your style and illuminating for new colleagues to have their expectations more closely aligned to the reality of working with you. Take some of the guesswork out of your working relationships and share the good, bad and even ugly up front.

For additional information and examples, click here.

leadership dot #2265: handwritten

A colleague, who anointed me as the Queen of Handwritten Notes and dubbed herself the Runner-Up, sent me an article about a company that has automated the process in the college admissions arena. Yes, that is correct, a machine is replicating “handwritten” notes, apparently with such realism that unsuspecting prospective students believe the school took the time to pen a note themselves.

Isn’t the whole point of handwritten to be personal and authentic, and doesn’t automation fly in the face of that?

The lesson that I take away from this reinforces the power of a legitimate handwritten note. In these days of mass production, a note with penmanship stands out among the junk mail, email, form letters and the like. Even cards for occasions such as birthdays or Christmas are being replaced with social media posts, e-newsletters or texts, all of which allows a handwritten note to make an impression.

I am saddened by this company who will now inject cynicism into the process and cause people to question whether their correspondence is really handwritten or not. Hopefully, the next note you receive will contain a personal sentiment and you’ll know that a machine did not craft it.

Quit trying to be things that you are not. If you are a large university, handwritten notes aren’t you – capitalize on your size and send tickets to a big sporting event instead. If you’re a big company, use your leverage to get a big name to endorse your product instead of pretending to be small. If you’re a big organization, handwrite notes to a select group of donors instead of pretending to be intimate for the masses.

There is enough fake communication out there these days without your adding to it.

Thanks, Bethany!



leadership dot #2264: catch

I have a ball-obsessed puppy who would play catch with you until she passed out from heat stroke.

But if I only have one ball, it is a futile experience. I throw it once and she holds on to it with clenched jaws. I have to fight to get it back.

In contrast, if I have two balls, I can throw one and she will retrieve it and immediately drop it at my feet then eagerly await the tossing of the second ball. This goes on for as long as I will participate.

Emma’s ball habits are the same as most humans. If we only have one thing that we know, we become very possessive and are hesitant to relinquish control. If something can be replaced with another, it becomes much easier to make a swap, especially if we trust that we will receive something in exchange rather than incur a loss.

Organizational change is like this, too. If the focus is only on taking away the old, people will clamp on and refuse to let go, but if we allow the new to be evident before we make a switch people become more willing to accept it.

Don’t play the change game with only one ball. It’s much more fun for everyone if there is a voluntary transfer instead of a tug-of-war.

leadership dot #2263: crossed off

I worked with someone who had a calendar at work where every day he would X out another date moving him closer to retirement. I always felt the weight of that calendar, like he was a prisoner marking time on a cell wall.

I recently saw him and asked how it was going. “Great,” he said. “I’m out golfing every day. Life is good.”

While I wish him well in retirement, I am still saddened by the fact that he had to come to the late stages of life before he could truly enjoy it.

Meaningful work is a gift. If you don’t have it in your life, do something about it besides X-ing dates off the calendar waiting for the end to come. It may arrive in ways other than what you planned.

leadership dot #2262: underutilized

I frequently travel through an intersection which has two lanes heading in one direction that quickly merge into one lane after the intersection. I like to use both lanes and merge, but often receive glares or horns from other drivers who apparently think I am doing so just to zoom ahead of them.

Are the cars who use the lane that ends wise or rude? If the lane isn’t to be used as I described, what purpose does it serve? An extra quarter-mile of roadway is likely to have cost six- figures so it was put there intentionally but continues to be woefully underutilized.

It seems to me that all could be resolved with proper signage like the one below. It gives permission for people to display the desired behavior and explains what that looks like to those who may be unfamiliar with the arrangement.

We underestimate the clarity that a simple sign can provide. In the past, I have posted instructions for employees about paying for beverages that were intended for visitors, thus resolving whether they were free for anyone to partake, and had signs specifying the types of materials that could or could not be recycled. With a simple notice, it removed ambiguity and decision-making energy.

What behaviors occur (or fail to occur) in your organization that could be corrected with a simple sign?

leadership dot #2261: volunteer

When I moved to Iowa ten years ago, I was the first house in a former field that was plowed over to create a subdivision. There were no trees on the multi-acre tract and even a decade later, the individual trees planted in me and my neighbors’ yards seem isolated and sparse. Fortunately for me, in my backyard is a robust line of trees that have all evolved naturally. Wind and birds took the acorns and seeds and deposited them on the fertile drain stream that runs along my fence, and these trees have grown much taller and faster than the ones I purchased.

I enjoy these “volunteer trees” and am reminded that what happens naturally – or in the case of humans, happens by choice – is always stronger than that which is forced. If we allow our staff or volunteers to choose their roles, chances are better that they will thrive more heartily than if they are placed somewhere by fiat. The synergy of a group creates a grove that flourishes and requires far less energy than forced pairings. If we allow for spontaneity and flow, like spirits will gravitate toward each other and create an abundance that does not occur in isolation.

My natural row of trees creates a wind barrier, a privacy fence and a view outside my window that I welcome. I didn’t do anything to create it, but I have taken measures to preserve it. Several times during adjacent construction or utility upgrades the contractors have wanted to clear the area – and they have done so in every other yard but mine. But I’ll keep my row of trees as an omnipresent reminder that we should respect the natural order of things and allow for some self-selection rather than imposing a structure on all that surrounds us.

What element of your organization would you be better off leaving alone?


leadership dot #2260: preparation

Usually when seeking to present at a conference, you submit a proposal with an outline or objectives, but once selected to present you are on your honor to adhere to what you proposed. I have presented at many conferences where that has been the case, but the organizers of an upcoming conference have taken their quality control to a new level. For this event, I have received multiple instructions and I need to submit my slides three weeks in advance. After they are reviewed, I’ll have a 20-minute phone call to go over my content and ensure that the presentation is interactive and advanced enough for the audience.

I welcome the clarity that the organizers are trying to provide. It feels like they are trying to set me up for success rather than leaving me on my own and the results to chance. It has caused me to up my game and really think about the material that I am sharing in hopes that it meets their exacting standards.

It occurs to me that these organizers are spending more time to set and manage expectations for my 70-minute session than many supervisors do for much more extensive and impactful assignments. How many times has your manager given you a task and then let you go do it without any conversation about expectations or parameters? Have you, as a supervisor, done the same for your employees?

You may not want or need to hold someone’s hand or go through this extensive of a review process if the person or project is familiar, but it provides a good model to follow for new ventures. Be clear about what you are seeking, and then take care that both parties understand how to translate those expectations into tangible actions.


leadership dot #2259: the train

I recently facilitated a session with a loosely-affiliated group that was attempting to initiate a new project. After two days together, people were excited about the prospects ahead and began to imagine other entities on campus that could be part of their efforts.

I applaud collaboration and cross-functional teams but cautioned them about taking on too much complexity at the start. The dozen or so people at the retreat had not only committed an extended period of time to be together, but during that time had amassed background information, shared language, and a common vision.

I likened their situation to that of a train. Moving a train from a dead stop requires a lot of energy, as does getting a project or task force off the ground. It’s hard to pull too many cars in that initial push, just as it is difficult to try and bring multiple entities on board from the beginning. Better to gain some momentum and then hitch a few more cars along for the ride. It is also difficult to pull any car who has their brakes on; best to leave them at the train yard rather than to expend energy trying to convince the recalcitrant. For the train to move forward it also needs an engineer, just as for a committee to make progress, it needs a leader to champion the cause, call people together and ensure that the initial enthusiasm doesn’t wane.

Translated to this group, I pushed hard for one person to be designated as the convener for the next gathering and for the group that was initially assembled to work together without the addition of others until the “train” was moving. I think it will serve them well to see some progress quickly rather than spending too much time boarding others at the station.

Think about the composition of your train as you take on future initiatives. Do you have an engineer? Is your train too long to quickly gain momentum? Are all the cars heading in the same direction? It’s much easier to align the train initially than to tend to a derailment.