March 13, 2013
5 Things Great Leaders No Longer Do

What worked in the past (if it ever did) definitely doesn’t work today.

Here are five things great leaders no longer do:

1. Stick to annual performance reviews.

Annual and semi-annual appraisals waste everyone’s time.

Years ago, my review was late so I mentioned it to my boss. He said, “I’ll get to it… but you realize you won’t learn a thing. You’ve already heard everything I have to say, good and bad. If anything on your review comes as a surprise to you I haven’t done my job.”

He was right. The best feedback isn’t scheduled; the best feedback happens on the spot when it makes the most impact, either as praise and encouragement or as suggestions for improvement and training.

Waiting for a scheduled review is the lazy way out. Your job is to coach and mentor and develop — every day.

2. Say, “Look, I’ve been meaning to apologize…”

Apologies should be made on the spot, every time. You should never need to apologize for not having apologized sooner. When you mess up, ‘fess up. Right away.

Don’t you want your employees to immediately let you know when they make a mistake? Model the same behavior.

3. Hold meetings to solicit ideas.

Many people hold brainstorming sessions to solicit ideas for improvement, especially when times get tough. Sounds great — after all, you’re “engaging employees” and “valuing their contributions,” right?

But you don’t need a meeting to get input. When employees know you listen, they’ll bring ideas to you.

Plus, the best way to ask for ideas is to talk to people individually and to be more specific. Say, “I wish we could find a way to get orders through our system faster. What would you change if you were me?”

Employees already have ideas. Trust me: They imagine themselves doing your job — and doing your job better than you do — all the time.

Be open, act on good ideas, explain why less than good ideas aren’t feasible and you’ll get all the input you can implement.

4. Create formal development plans.

Development plans are, like annual performance reviews, largely a corporate construct. (HR staffers love to monitor compliance and alert managers when supervisors are late turning in their employees’ development plans. Or maybe that’s just my experience.)

You should know what each of your employees hopes to achieve: skills and experience they want to gain, career paths they hope to take, etc. So talk about it — informally. Assign projects that fit. Provide training that fits. Create opportunities that fit. Then give feedback on the spot.

“Develop” is a verb that requires action; “development” is a noun that sits in a file cabinet.

5. Call in favors.

I know lots of bosses who play the guilt game, like saying, “John, I’ve been very flexible with your schedule the last few months while your wife was sick… now I really need you to come through for me and work this weekend.”

When you’re a boss, generosity should always be a one-way street. Be flexible when being flexible is the right thing to do. Be accommodating when accommodation is the right thing to do.

Never lend money to friends unless you don’t care if you are repaid, and never do “favors” for employees in anticipation of return. As a leader, only give — never take.

  • Don Mercer

    Very good points, but I have read contrary research on #3. Cutting to the chase, the research said that if ‘brainstorming’ is conducted with a combination of idea submission and meetings, the quantity and quality of ideas maximized. Perhaps another reader can guide you to the exact source. The idea submission phase was through the computer network and ideas were discussed, improved, etc. and refined. A group culled out the best and then the face to face meetings began. The final products were judged to be better than traditional methods or computer network only.

  • Norm Grimes

    Great article for discussion. I’ve found that calling meetings to solicit ideas is mostly a waste of time. Some people will naturally dominate the time, while others will idly sit by afraid to foward any of their own ideas to avoid ridicule. A truly open door policy allows those people the ability to discuss their ideas anonymously if they choose. And there’s always the NVA guy (No Value Added) that draws the group down rabbit holes and never sticks to discussion. Smaller groups or individual discussions seem to work best for most brain storming. As far as calling favors, the employee should be willing to give as well as take extra time when required. It is the right and ethical thing to do. Especially if you’re a salaried employee.

    • J. Smith

      I agree, that some brainstorm meetings can get out of hand. I like your idea about
      holding brainstorm meeting in smaller groups and this can remedy lengthy and
      off-track discussions. If you do conduct these smaller brainstorm meetings, you
      believe should include all the employees that you would normally use for
      brainstorming. By combining groups with employees that work well together, this
      could keep the topic on track.

      However, I do disagree, when you say brainstorm meetings are “mostly a waste of time.” As the boss, you could actually
      have fun in these meeting because you will see the talent in your company
      explode and get to know your employees. Have fun with brainstorm meetings by
      creating a theme, have everyone bring in a “sack lunch” and surprise them by
      asking each of them why did you bring that? This can be an “icebreaker.” I
      honestly think we take things to seriously and forget how to have fun.

  • disqus_Kiwqi4y6Mn

    WOW! Mr. Haden if only every company and HR department had a leader who thought like you… for the majority we wouldn’t have to work under iron fists, psychopaths – sociopaths, narcissists, and the occasional two year old spitting the dummy personality.

  • C. Esther de Wolde

    Really? No more performance reviews? Sweet. But let’s not mistake this to mean no more accountability. Suggesting no reviews is only for the disciplined leader.

  • markgrimm

    Good communication is an ongoing process so there should never be any surprises at a performance evaluation. However, the evaluatuions are helpful if you have bosses who don’t express themselves the way they should. Otherwise, you may get little or no feedback. By the way, feedback is a two-way street. More on internal communication here:

  • Will Carpenter

    I commanded ships for 30 years. All of this, plus the confidence to treat your job as if you’re a medieval warlord and your area of responsibility is your personal fiefdom.

  • Keyser Sose

    Most of this is related to trust. That is the number one attribute that you as a lead must nurture, develop and carefully preserve. Once trust is gone, no management book will save you.

    • Jkohser

      This is so true. A long time ago one of my wise staff told me as I took on a new position that if I had their backs they would have mine. There’s a big difference between being a leader and being a manager. Being a manager is tied to the position you hold. The leader is the one who has people who believe in them and their vision. This won’t happen without trust.

  • godsaidno

    Jeff Haden offers no description of where these five nuggets come from. I’m not asking for the kind of rigor that would go with a peer reviewed research piece – just some assurance that the writer isn’t pulling five notions (why not six?) off the top of his head. A few examples of his real-world observations and conversations with leaders to illustrate his points would separate this article from others where a writer cast as an expert just rattles off “x” number of “things we need to know.” I’m not disagreeing with Haden. What he’s sharing here really does resonate with me. (A lot!) But a little more respect for the reader would give this more weight.