Everyone, in every part of the world, is easily engaged in conversation if you start with something about the weather. You've probably experienced the uncomfortable silence when people first meet, and then they turn to the weather as an easy, safe topic. It affects us all, like the great equalizer.
This year might well be marked in history as the year of the storm. The southern United States got pummeled by Harvey and Irma, and we're all still watching closely for Puerto Rico to recover from Maria. It will be years before the areas are fully recovered, and hurricane season isn't quite over as I write this. And fires are, thankfully, slowly dimming as the snow starts to fall in the north and west. In the year 2012, I referenced the weather for an article that I'll reprise here. It's almost eerie how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
With all the destruction that happens, there are always wonderful stories of generosity and courage. Relationships (and maybe properties) will be stronger after the healing and rebuilding. It's the one constant after the storms; we find ways to be better people and how to build better structures. Our own insurance industry is responsible for so many life-saving procedures and safety ideas that come out of the tragedies we see. IRMI uses the tagline "saving lives and livelihoods" occasionally. I think we all tend to forget how important our industry is to the world, given our constant quest for fewer accidents, less damage, and lives saved.
In life, and in the workplace, some storms are smaller. Some are quiet, and some rage for years before they come to fruition, more like volcanoes.
Managing the Storms
As managers, we have to be able to see those smaller storms before everyone else does. It's easy to see a hurricane coming and get everyone out of the way. Big, bad, obnoxious behavior is easily spotted and eliminated.
Long-term leadership requires that we see the storms simmering under the surface. Then, we must deflect that potential damage before it ever happens.
If you have been a manager, even for a short time, you know exactly what I mean: The nasty but quiet office gossip, the "underminers," the employee who gets by, but barely, or the ones who don't understand that we're all in this together. Or maybe you have the passive aggressive who does what he is told, to the letter, knowing that it's a misdirection of some sort but never saying a word, so that blame can be placed elsewhere. In nonservice industries, this could also be the product that just barely delivers, lasts just past the warranty, or makes promises that aren't delivered.
Seeing these types of smaller, simmering storms in our offices is a skill we develop by MBWA: management by walking around. You learn, over time, what groups or people will foster positive, encouraging conversations, and which ones just fester like a slow burn that won't go out.
Watching and Preparing for the Worst
Walking into the kitchen (dare I say it … actually eating lunch there sometimes?) can teach you so much. Listen very carefully. They will tell you where the problems are, who is having the hardest time, and why.
Direct, no bones about it, conversations are required when you find the source of the storms. Face-to-face confrontation is never easy, especially when you lack the easy out—poor performance. What of the excellent performer who reduces everyone around them to tears? What about the one who can track every reason they "did their best" but speaks with venom about every other employee or the company in general?
Cancers must be removed, even though it's painful. The act of putting out a fire causes other collateral damage that has to be mitigated. Water and fire foam damages too but is more easily corrected later. Proper preparation, setting expectations, and communication, with strong culture building, can avert the problem to begin with, sometimes, but at a minimum it will aid in the healing later when you take action that affects everyone. In the end, leadership means protecting the entire organization, not just the single person.
Some storms are needed, you know. The forest needs the hard rain that drives the moisture well into the ground or the lightning strike that starts the fire that allows pinecones to pop out their seeds. The storm in your office may be just what you needed to drive action or spark that hard conversation that reveals something amiss that you would never have seen otherwise.
And, just when you think you're getting a break in the clouds, you might find that you were the source of the upper-level disturbance all along. That's the hardest conversation of all: the one with yourself. Great leadership doesn't mean perfection, unfortunately. Juggling the internal needs of the staff, the external needs of the customers, and the balance between them mean that sooner or later, something will give. It's as inevitable as the proverbial agency errors and omissions claim.
If you find you are the one that dropped the proverbial match that started the fire, there is only one way to fix it. The thing to remember is that your actions are always under a microscope. Someone is always watching and taking direction from what he or she sees from his or her leader's behavior in good times and in bad. Being human and making a mistake simply can't be avoided. The question is, what bubbles to the surface when you realize you're to blame? How do you react? What examples will you set when you realize you started the fire?
Own It, Solve It, Share It
Our human tendency is to make an excuse or a cover-up. We all know that doesn't work for long; the news is full of stories of politicians and executives who are found out eventually. Recently, after a protracted, multiyear investigation and subsequent mistrial, a politician had to stand at the press podium and take responsibility for his "sins." Sooner or later, we are always exposed whether the misdeed was large or small.
A swift acknowledgment of our mistake, open conversations, and real disclosure make a good start. Taking whatever action and accountability is required to repair the damage is the most profitable way to handle that situation. Delay almost always means a financial loss in the long run.
Whoever is to blame, one of the best ways to determine the character of the people you lead is to watch them when there is a problem. How they handle their own mistakes and the mistakes of others is a sure sign of what they can do in general. Is there a rash of finger-pointing? Is the focus on correction or blame, past or future? Do they slide down that slippery slope? Or do they rise above and help others bail the floodwaters?
The other conversation you need to have with yourself is the one about letting go. It's not a new discussion.
Are you allowing the opportunity for the pine trees to seed? Some fires are needed. If you quench every fire yourself, growth won't happen. Your charges need to learn how to put some fires out on their own. That means you can't be there with the fire hose.
In the best situations, you've taught your team so well, and trusted them so much, that you never know about most of the fires at all. They are handled, quenched, and the rebuilding is done without any intervention from you at all. Start with smaller tests, and find out what they learn. Find out what you learn! When your mind is on the long term, this is easier. It is not something that you can do overnight, however well-intentioned you are. If the culture isn't one of enablement and inspiration, it'll take a while to stop them from running to you when they see the first sign of smoke. Give yourself a chance to learn how to send them back out there when they do run to you, without taking over on the fire hose yourself.
But as you let go, and everyone learns from the changing weather patterns, you can begin to appreciate the value of the storms and benefit from them. They aren't going away; storms never really end. But we can learn to see the beauty and value that they can leave behind.
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