Leadership Concepts

A blog of everson-consulting.com emphasizing practical tips on leadership, motivation, and teamwork. Authored by Terry Everson - Everson-Consulting.com

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lessons from the Blugold

As I consider what to post on this blog one of my wants is to share parts of an upcoming Leadership book that I am writing. "Stuff I Wish I Knew When I Got Started" is a compilation of personal and professional "ah ha's" from my 30+ years of leadership and management experience. I hope this forward piques interest in future "Stuff".


Over the past 5 years, as I put together notes for this book, looking for real-life examples of leadership in action, + and -, I knew the toughest part of the writing experience would be the introduction. From the Harvard MBA manuals to the Managing for Dummies series, they all had clever come-ons and insightful examples, with heavily researched statistical analysis.

I promised mine would be different. I wanted to include real-life people. The good examples I will recognize by name, the butt-heads will go unnamed, but if they read real close they will certainly recognize themselves, loud and clear.

To begin, I’d like to go back in time. Let’s take the “wayback” machine to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the site of a university located in the central part of the state. UWEC is known for lots of stuff, some of it even related to a strong academic environment. I may get to the Tornado Watch and the spring Rod and Gunners a bit later.

Back in 1968, when I transferred in as a junior, the country was in the middle of the Viet Nam “conflict” and the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had a son who was leading the anti-war movement on the UWEC campus. Priceless!!

The weekends were an Animal House blur, capped off with Sunday Packer’s football follies.

Intertwined in these events came Frank Herremann, a Madison-area transplant, and my first “leadership” guru. To most Frank was an enigma. He managed the university student union, the Blugold. To this day no one in the UWEC family knows what a Blugold is. Perhaps it is a cheese-head version of Sasquatch.

Few people really knew Frank, other than the fact that he was the little guy at the Blugold who drove the yellow Corvette convertible with the top down, 365 days a year. Quite a feat when you consider that in Central Wisconsin they have 10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet could convince Frank to put the top up on his beloved “vette”.

During the winter breaks Frank recruited me to help with major cleaning projects. As a student employee, I focused on evening cleaning activity, to include tons of newpapers, endless cigarette butts, and periodic unmentionables. The life of the student janitor is never dull.

Most of you went through school looking straight past the janitors. My hero is the janitor in the movie “The Breakfast Club”. He knew all, and so did we, from who was dating who in the Tri Sigs, to who in the TKE's just flunked out.

When the winter break came around we shut down the Blugold for two weeks, stacked the tables and chairs, and stripped and refinished the floors. To this day they shine. The cleaning process, while routine, gave me a chance to watch a true craftsman. Frank excelled at all janitorial tasks, from stripping the floors through the waxing phase. Once we completed the prepping phases the real trick was the buffing process. This is where Frank really shined (pardon the pun).

He secured the power buffer from the main campus and together we attacked the Blugold floor. This was no small task. Visualize an area 50’/100’. This was a serious buff job.

Here was a 5’3” guy, sliding along like Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers; one hand on the machine, one hand holding his ever-present cigarette. He was like Picasso with a power buffer. I marveled at his technique; smooth, effortless, and totally trusting the 200 pound machine.

Here was my first lesson in humility. I pressured Frank to let me take over the buffer. Certainly I could do just as good a job as this little old man. I mean, how tough can it be. Frank did it one handed. After much angst Frank finally succumbed. He walked me through the introductory techniques. Techniques, Schmechniques!! Watch me make this baby dance

Silly me!!!

I blew off Frank’s suggestions and he turned me loose, much like Mr. Miagi did with the Karate Kid. I flipped the switch and all hell broke loose. I might as well have been riding a bucking bronco on the World Rodeo Tour. That sucker took off and the harder I fought it the worse it fought back. I barely missed the large double entry doors, I bounced off the marble pillars and I took a chunk out of some to the baseboard molding. The more I fought it the worse things got.

Mercifully, after about 45 seconds of chaos, Frank ended the affair by pulling the plug from the wall. I stood there, totally embarrassed, and all Frank did was smile. What did he know that I didn’t?

Frank inched toward me, taking a long drag from his cigarette. He knew just what to say, and when. He put his hand on my shoulder and blessed me with my first "Leadership Ah Ha",
“ Terry, you can’t force things, you need to guide them. If you try to use force you are going to be fighting a losing battle. Next time we will work together to do it right”. He then showed me how to let the machine use its natural power to do the work, all the while gently guiding the machine to the desired performance.

I wish I could say I processed that into my leadership memory bank right away but it took me several years to realize the wisdom of Frank’s words. It really hit home when, in 1982, a former colleague and I developed an adult learning model called “Guided Discovery”. It was then that Frank’s message really made sense. People are like that buffer. Force them with your “position power” because you are the boss and they will fight you all day. If instead you guide them through the day-to-day operations, using your “personal power”, allowing them to self-discover while providing them with a safe, continuous learning environment, they will perform like that smooth running buffer.

This book includes lots of my personal ah ha’s and hopefully it spurs you to also do some soul searching.

As a postscript to the “Blugold Buffer” lesson, in 1971 I had the misfortune of going on active duty and was assigned to Army basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Known as Tigerland, this was, and probably still is, the least liked military base in the US. It is a pit but it was my pit for 6 months.

While in basic training one of the weekly assignments was to spit shine the tile floors in the barracks. Without going into the gory details let’s just say it involved lots of elbow grease and painful backs. It was brutal and time consuming. One day while we were cussing out the drill sergeant we discovered a closet that contained a weird looking piece of equipment. There sat an industrial strength power buffer!!

The “Circle of Life” returns. We slid the beast out of its lair and pushed the bunks off to the slides. I stoked it up and off we flew. Frank would have been proud. After about 15 minutes some of the younger guys in the platoon wanted to show their stuff. One young buck, a defensive lineman from the University of Kansas, decided it was time for him to take over. Disregarding my words of wisdom and offers of guidance, he told me to step aside and he would show us how to do it.

It was not a pretty sight. With footlockers flying and bunks tipping, the machine took over and as we all now know, you can’t fight it. I finally did my best Frank imitation, pulled the plug, and with cigarette in hand, I strolled over to the lad and said, “Steve, you have to guide it, you can’t force it. Next time, let’s work together to make this a win/win for everyone”. Hopefully Frank heard those words from wherever he was watching.

As we move into the book, talking about real-life people in real-life situations, please don’t look for extensive statistical analyses and chi square comparisons. W. Edwards Deming I am not. What I am is a pretty good student of human nature and an observer/trainer/adult educator who can translate real-life into leadership/management Ah Ha’s that you can take back to the office.

If you are ready, let’s go. If not, hopefully you will remember Frank the next time you have a leadership challenge. It isn’t rocket science, but it does require common sense, which may not be so common.

Everyday Leadership is Easier Than You Think

Easier Than You Think

All the stuff I have been reading about leadership is very “interesting”. Every periodical has a new theory, a new guru professing to have the answers to our leadership void. We are told about varying leadership skills, traits, and characteristics. I, too, thought I had a pretty good handle on this leadership thing until one day someone asked a question that stopped me in my tracks.

I was conducting a breakout session at a national seminar for financial aid professionals, and while doing my best song and dance\on the platform, one of the attendees, “Anna”, asked me to explain why some leaders succeed with certain groups and fail miserably with others.

Hmmm. Good question!

I’m usually pretty quick on my feet but this question planted a seed that took some time to germinate.

Later that evening at a reception Anna cornered me and wanted to go into more depth about her situation. She related her personal leadership challenge, one that began during the dot.com boom in the mid-90’s and after many trials and tribulations evolved to her present leadership role in a Midwest financial services organization.

She described her leadership activities, all seemingly solid, but she failed with the “go-go” group in California, yet blossomed in her new role heading up a team of accountants. After we parted that evening I was stumped; same skills, same approach, different people, different results.

Little did I know that I was falling into a leadership trap that we often experience. I was trying to put a new concept into an old “paradigm”. Joel Barker has made a ton on the “paradigm” concept, but basically a paradigm is a habit, a way of viewing things and I was using tunnel vision to solve “Anna’s problem”.

For years I have been using a leadership model adapted from Ken Blanchard’s classic Situational Leadership approach. Need-Based Leadership, developed in conjunction with Bill Koeper, at the time the Corporate Training Director at Cuna Mutual Insurance Group in Madison, moves people through 4 phases of skill development, not unlike your high school experience. Remember the feeling you had as a freshman. You were overwhelmed, afraid, insecure, confused, afraid of looking foolish, and all the while destine to make mistakes.

Then came the sophomore experience. No longer a freshman, you thought you were pretty cool. You knew the ropes, you knew your way around. In fact the definition of sophomore is “wise fool”. Sums it up nicely, don’ you think?

As you progress though Skill Specific Improvement (SSI), and each skill is a unique experience, we make a major move from the “sophomore” to the “junior” level. The “I”centric focus of freshmen and sophomore performance evolves into the “We” behavior for the juniors. Juniors begin to identify with the bigger, team picture. They willingly share their knowledge as trainers and coaches. They help build the sense of team camaraderie.

Senior level performance, or Subject Matter Experts, (SME’s), presents an interesting leadership challenge. While the most skilled on a task, they often separate themselves from the rest of the staff and if not nurtured and included in team dynamics, can pass on an air of arrogance and isolation.

To move each person through the four levels require differing skill sets at each step of the model, from training for the freshman to convincing for the sophomores, to coaching for the juniors and finally mentoring for the seniors.

This was the model I shared with Anna and she just smiled in wry amusement. This was exactly her approach and even so, in one case she failed, in one case she shone. She didn’t understand why, and neither did I.

A few nights later the Anna dilemma was still on my mind as I turned on the boob tube to mind fade for a while. Silly me! I thought an episode from the 60’s classic Wagon Train would do the job. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Anna was a SETTLER and she will always be a SETTLER. She succeeded because she was using her settler leadership skills with her settler followers. Anna failed on the West Coast when she tried to overlay her settler leadership tools on a band of pioneers. As I followed the episode that evening I started to put together a list of characteristics that define these two distinct groups:


· Planned
· Organized
· Practical
· Risk adverse
· Grounded
· Factual

· Imaginative
· Risk Takers
· Creative
· Unsettled
· Future-oriented
· Adaptable

No wonder each group requires its own leaders, be they formal or informal. The formal leaders are the managers and supervisors, the informal leaders are often the lead workers of the team who simply rise to a leadership stature by doing what leaders do:

Leaders take you to a place you wouldn’t go to on your own.

Ever wonder why “Bob” your boss, the one with vision out to the end of his nose, struggles with a team of creative, out of the box employees, who would rather bend or break the rules than live within them.

And then there is “Bruce”, the leader who doesn’t even realize here is a box and scares the soup out of his team with his energy, enthusiasm, and lack of focus. They are more content to do the same ‘ol, same ‘ol.

So here is what we have. Bob is the Settler boss trying to lead a group of Pioneers, and Bruce is the Pioneer boss who is trying to lead the team of Settlers. Can you see the disconnect?

Taking the Wagon Train theme once step further, in a perfect world we have pioneer leaders with pioneer followers, settler leaders with settler followers. Similar traits, characteristics, competencies create an environment of trust, comfort, and success.

I thought I had the answer until I realized that in every organization we need to have both pioneers and settlers. Pioneers push the envelope, they drive innovation and change. They challenge the status quo. Settlers are the status quo. That’s what makes them settlers. They are responsible for the day-to-day activity that lays the foundation for any organization. They focus on policies/procedures, standards, and structure within which the rest of the work gets done.

Here’s the diagnosis:

Only Pioneers= energy, excitement, and chaos
Only Settlers= structure, control, and boring

The biggest problem is that the Pioneers scare the soup out of the Settlers and the Settlers bore the heck out of the Pioneers. Each group deems the other a “challenge/problem”, potential trouble and a major speed bump in life.

So how do we get these two distinctly different work groups to “play nice”?

Ward Bond had the answer. For those of you who are chronologically challenged and came along after the 60’s, Ward Bond played the Wagon Master. The Wagon Master was the connection piece the person in charge of the entire expedition, the person who served as the translator between the Pioneers and the Settlers. He took the vision, the energy, and the risk taking from the Pioneers and translated it to the Settlers in words and deeds that they could identify with. Meanwhile, he took the structure, the fear, and the control from the Settlers and used that as a barometer to temper the Pioneers.

Without the Wagon Master the wagon train dissolves into confusion, frustration, and anger. If this sounds like your office you may be onto something. The Wagon Master is the inter-connection point for the team. For purposes of illustration, Ward Bond was that linchpin for the wagon train. He was the person in charge, the manager. In other organizations, perhaps yours, the Wagon Master need not be a formal manager. He or she may be an informal leader who has the communication and leadership behavior that enables them to be the go-between, the trusted ally for both the Settlers and the Pioneers.

I am just beginning to work on the profile of the Wagon Master. We have a solid profile of the Pioneers and the Settlers, but with our help we can build the next installment of this story. If you know a Wagon Master, or if you have earned that title within your organization, please contact me with details.

In the next article hopefully we will have a better picture of this American Leadership saga.

Wagons Ho!!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

One Band, One Sound

One Band, One Sound

If you are looking for an entertaining movie with a powerful leadership message, I would like to suggest "Drumline" . For those of you have been in a “corp” you will immediately identify with the characters, but if you are simply looking for a powerful message about leadership and “followership”, invest the two hours.

The line, One Band, One Sound, comes during a “counseling’ session between the Director and the key characters. It is such a poignant phrase, I am using it as the title for my first-ever blog.

Being a CEO is much like being the Director of an orchestra or band. Every Director I have played for is a very strong individual, with a clear understanding of his role/responsibility/authority and often marches to a different drummer. (Heh, I had to throw that one in.)

CEO’s are cut from the same cloth. They are in charge; they have, in their mind, a clear understanding about what the organization should look like and how it should operate. That is why is was so surprising to come across a video that adds a unique twist to the One Band, One Sound theme.

What message does this send to you? Don’t drink and play? That is one good lesson!

How about the fact that every organization has limited resources and to make the most of those resources it is critical for the leader to recruit the most talented professionals? Remember: First class leaders hire first class staff; second-class leaders hire third-class staff!

Just a thought for the day, July 30, 2009.

We will build on the One Band, One Sound theme in later blogs.

Have a great day.

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