3 leadership lessons I learned when things didn’t go well

I am rapidly approaching the end of a chapter of my professional life, and will be starting another very soon. In just a few more days, I’ll be turning in my keys, taking the weekend off, and starting fresh in a new role at a new company. I’m especially excited about this next chapter because I’m getting the chance to lead at a level that makes more sense for my skills, my temperament, and my life goals.

“And lo, the man went to his abode, and he cracked open one that was cold, for he was victorious in his hunt.” – Deuces Suckas

I have to say, for many reasons, this year (professionally) just didn’t go as planned. I made plenty of mistakes, made mistakes in the midst of bad timing, and kinda just never “clicked” in my environment. I battled, and I certainly improved every situation they thrust me into, but I’d be lying if I said it was a natural fit.

So, I’m moving on!

But I wouldn’t be Rickey if I didn’t take this opportunity to think through the mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned in the last year!

So, without delay, I give you:

3 Leadership Lessons I Learned When Things Didn’t Go Well.

1.If you can’t trust your team, get a new team.

Great “culture” only matters if it delivers results.

When you lead a team, by definition, you are paid for coordinating the efforts and results of other people. And, that requires you to extend your reach beyond your immediate vision.

In other words: you’re on the hook for what your peeps are doing when you can’t see them.

I spent entirely too much time this year attempting to give people 2nd and 3rd chances, being empathetic, understanding their struggles, and the like. Read that closely – I spent too much time. That means some amount of time is absolutely correct and necessary, unless you are carrying on your family’s tradition of being dictators of North Korea. Barring that, it’s warranted and respectable to give a little deference to your people when they screw up. In fact, it can be a building block for enhancing your relationship with them, and ultimately getting even more out of them than you otherwise would have.


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The key is you have to be hard on the standards, but easy on the people. Your job is to make behaviors and standards line up in order to produce results. You can’t, in good conscience, change the standards…so that leaves changing the behaviors as your only choice. And you’re unlikely to change behaviors if you’re a complete ass to everyone. But you’re unlikely to meet standards if you’re too understanding of shortcomings.


Once you’ve clearly established the rule, ensured training is thorough, and removed all of the obstacles, you’re left with one reality: your people either can and will do the work, or they cannot or will not do it.

Harsh reality: there are 7 billion people on the planet, and if this kid can’t put a label on the cambro of cut beets like you asked him to, try once more, check your own training/tools/obstacles…and then fire him and move the %&^$ on with your life and your business!

Say it with me: no one cares about your culture if your results suck.

2.You can (and should) say NO.

I’m the type of person that prides myself on work ethic and my ability to take on more and more and more. And that’s a really stupid idea. Here’s why:

If your job is to produce results, you will be more valued for producing an A on one test than producing B’s on two tests. Pure and simple. If that math doesn’t make sense, ratchet the numbers until you can see yourself falling a tiny bit short of awesome because you’re stretched thin and short on ammo.

I was put in a situation that seemed quasi-legit a few months into my role. They said, “we’d like to give you more responsibility, and since you’ve done higher-level work before, we think this will be a great opportunity for you to demonstrate what you’re capable of.”

What that turned out to mean was you’re doing a good job, we’d like to have you double your responsibilities, pay you exactly the same, and not give you any tools or support for several months while that happens. Sound good?

I should have said NO as soon as I figured that out. I would have pissed off my superiors for a month or two, but I could have focused all of my attention on the rather huge task #1 they gave me, nailed it, and then still had time to impress them in other ways.

Can I guarantee you that would have worked? Nah. But given the choice, I’d rather piss them off and deliver great results, than to make them temporarily happy and perform at a B level.

No one cares about your reasons – even when THEY caused the reasons – if your results suck.

3.Keep digging until you are sure you’re hitting the root.

When you are in the business of solving problems, it’s vital that you live by the 80/20 rule. For those of you who don’t know about it, here’s the (admittedly less-than-thorough) Rickey version:

You get 80% of your results from 20% of your work, and vice versa.

It’s your job to identify the issues that are sub-optimal, then dig relentlessly until you’re positive you’ve found the source.

Here’s the catch: you see the same stuff all day every day. It can be very difficult to see the source when you’re too close to the problem. When that happens, you have to either ask for an assist from someone else, or shake up your own view by seeing it all from a different angle.

Here’s an example from my work. I noticed that my staff was tracking food into the dining room, so I put down mats. Then I had dirty mats, and eventually they were just tracking food from the dirty mats around. I assumed they were just a bunch of filthy, filthy bastards.

My boss came through one day and said, “I think the issue is that your team is getting food all over the floor.” I stood back and watched for 5 minutes – just 5 minutes! – and watched employee after employee throw food all over the damned place as they did their work! I was right – they were filthy bastards! But how many times had I walked past the actual source of the issue? How focused was I on all of the things I didn’t like that this obvious reason was so easily missed? I clearly saw the result that I didn’t like, and I “solved it” ineffectively – because I never got to the source.

All it took was a different perspective and 5 minutes of my time, and I fixed the entirety of the problem – for good – in just a few days.

So…while I hesitate to call much of anything a “failure,” I can say that things didn’t go as well as I’d planned, and I’m walking away with three nuggets that I will absolutely be applying consciously to my next gig.

If you got something out of this, share it! Follow me on facebook or twitter if you want to keep up with my latest mental shenanigans.

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