Giving and Receiving Critical Feedback

Something my friend and colleague Todd Gregory and I wrote for our work in wildland fire, but the themes are broad and universal. Enjoy.

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

By Dana Skelly and Todd Gregory

takewith

A trainee walks into a bar…

Right. How about this: A trainee comes your way, not really impressing you, but whatever. Close to finishing their book, you cut them loose to run the mission. You thumb through their task book. You see that this is their sixth assignment and the only way the last two evaluators have gotten away with checking “not all tasks were evaluated…” is by breaking out bullets—like you aren’t supposed to do.

notalltasks

Sucks to be in that position. How does this even happen?

It happens because we let it happen.

And really, it sucks for both of you.

We see helping each other in this way as being confrontational or negative. So we avoid giving tough feedback and constructive alternatives—and we end up passing the buck.

The Easy Wrong

Why is this story something you can relate to? Because it…

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Leadership Trickles Down

This article was originally posted to Govloop in December 2017.

Your team, your style.

We spend a lot of time on leadership skills by working in and leading teams. Have you ever walked into a new team and sensed a personality or common energy? Maybe you walked into a group and felt welcomed right away. Another was quiet or focused. Others have some kind of tension or awkwardness about them. Sometimes you walk into a room that is full of laughter.

The character you sense in a team can be a direct reflection of the leader’s personality. Understanding that is one way to frame how to adjust your style – model behavior you want to see – to improve the performance of your team.

Observations from the Field

Here’s an example. Early in my career, I supervised a 20-person crew. They came to thin vegetation along the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a gated subdivision. This type of area is what we often refer to as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). When we manage the forest through thinning and prescribed burns, it helps reduce the risk of a wildfire coming into the park from the adjacent houses or vice versa. The intent behind this type of work is described through the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

The crew was divided into two modules, each with a captain. We’ll call them A-mod and B-mod in this story. As they worked, I started to notice patterns in their performance. For example, A-mod was always the first to brag about how many acres they had thinned on a given day. In comparison, B-mod devoted a saw team to going back through and fine-tuning their work before moving on to the next area. When they were thinning, A-mod was having more difficulty with falling their trees than B-mod. It became clear that this was due to rushing – because they framed success by quantity where it became clear that B-mod’s metric was quality.

This crew was visiting for a month to work at the Smokies and part way through they took some days off. The first night, five of them were arrested for a variety of issues – from public drunkenness to felony assault. And wouldn’t you know it, the majority were from A-mod.

This brought me to reflect, as something of this magnitude might bring you to do. I recognized how the different module captains interacted, spoke, worked with their crews and generally looked at their work. The captain from B-mod had been through a serious accident that set him back physically – he had to relearn to walk – and yet here he was, leading a group in the field again. He was very self-aware, patient and easy to supervise. The captain from A-mod was very competitive, intense – fun to be around but when he disagreed, he was difficult to supervise.

How do you affect your groups?

The modules – their rhythms, their definitions of success – very much reflected their captains. Even after the crew had gone home and our local workforce burned the piles later that year, we noticed the difference. The extra time and attention that B-mod put into their piles made them burn easily that winter. The piles A-mod made took more energy and time to burn.

I’ve come to describe what that experience taught me as leadership trickling down. Christopher Thomas’s post, 6 Lessons from a Successful Entrepreneur, provides a number of examples of inspiring leaders in business settings and how their character is reflected in their companies.

Becoming conscious of this pattern has helped me better understand team dynamics. It’s also helped me adjust them through my own behaviors. For example, I had a team that had a number of personality conflicts. I was friends with one of the individuals and had been sharing freely when we caught up in private.

While the content of those discussions stayed private, it very much affected the way she interacted with team members. I pivoted – reigning in what I shared, facilitating discussions from venting to constructive sensing. It worked.

In emergency management, we have established teams that respond to natural disasters. It is an efficient way to ensure that these complex missions are well supported. We call these incident management teams, and they are typically groups that function together for periods of time on a regular basis. These teams can be very large, upwards of 80 people. Even in groups of that size, the team dynamics reflect their team leader or Incident Commander or IC.

When I notice that the team works well together and is fun to be a part of, I make a point to acknowledge that to the IC. When they are struggling, I look for opportunities to coach and lead up.

Understanding this pattern and adjusting your style is a small component of emotional intelligence. Becoming conscious of these patterns and reframing how you approach teams can have a profound impact on process, products and — most importantly — people.

The Fezziwig Approach to Management

This originally appeared in 12/2017 on the site Govloop.

Fezziwig…Fezziwig….where do we know that from?

Tis the season for holiday staples — decorations, music and ye old favorite stories. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is one piece of what rounds out so much of our holiday weltanschauung, or world view, with themes as universal as any.

But do you remember who Fezziwig is and where you first met?

The Archetype of the Benevolent Overlord

On Ebenezer Scrooge’s tour with the Ghost of Christmas past, they pay a visit to where he was apprenticed as a youth. It took them to Fezziwig’s Ball, the quintessential office holiday party. Scrooge is uncharacteristically happy at the memory, prompting the Ghost to ask why – He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” 

Scrooge bristles at the question and replies: “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. And say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.

A thoughtful nod by Scrooge at the profound impact Fezziwig’s bearing had on his staff. Is it Scrooge’s joy that makes this memorable or that you can hear Fezziwig’s laughter echoing in your mind? Like Scrooge, do you admire this style and feel yourself inspired by this manager – imagining the fun at the party along with the family and friends of the company?

As the story goes on, Ebenezer reaches a fork in the road and becomes a far different kind of manager than this first mentor.  For this discussion, let’s stop right here and focus on this happier example.

The Tenets of Fezziwig’s Leadership

The quality hammered home above all else in this part of  A Christmas Carol is Fezziwig’s generosity. Sharing his and his family’s happiness with his employees and their loved ones is an act of appreciation. It also sets a tone of respect and support that we can imagine lasts throughout the work year on a number of levels.

In many ways, this is practicing Authentic Leadership.

Bill George, in an article on authentic leaders, offers these core principles:

  • Authentic leadership is built on your character. From inspiring and empowering others to making unpopular decisions – this flexibility comes from the heart. As Warren Bennis said, “It has to do with who we are as human beings and the forces that shaped us.”
  • Authentic leaders are real and genuine.
  • Authentic leaders are constantly growing. Inherent in this style of leadership is being a constant student of your peers, subordinates and your experience. Openness to new approaches is foundational to empowered environments. Growth comes from a love of life and all it has to teach us.
  • Authentic leaders match their behavior to their context. This is another demonstration of emotional intelligence — patience and listening to nimbly adapt communication to be most effective with an audience.

Why This Resonates: The Path to Peak Performance

It’s simple and neatly comes back to the work of humanist, Abraham Maslow. In humanistic psychology, we look at individuals as a whole person with an eye towards helping them fulfill their potential. Maslow details this in his Hierarchy of Needs  – often shown as a pyramid – starting with meeting people’s basic needs of safety and security. Once this foundation is set, we have the freedom for growth that builds to feeling like we are part of something bigger than ourselves, thus realizing our full potential.

Yo ho there!  Now we see it! One hundred years before Maslow defined it scientifically, Dickens gave us the perfect example.  Scrooge barely provides for the bottom portions of Maslow’s pyramid for himself and his employees and reckons with this on his journey. An excellent illustration.

On the flip side, Fezziwig is providing care for his employees as whole people. Even when they are responding to his simple request to close the shop, they do it with joy. What a lovely reminder that one person can do so much, but an inspired team can do so much more. Empowering and inspiring your people brings an upward energy trend. We make change together and we are excited to do it.

I break the Fezziwig example down even more simply – to always strive to be someone I would want to work for. And who wouldn’t want to work for Mr. Fezziwig? You can’t even think the name Fezziwig without smiling because it’s a fun combination of sounds and it brings up fond images.

Tis the season, and it can last as long as you wish. Cheers!

Don’t Eat Before Your Crew: Exploring Servant Leadership

This post originally appeared in Govloop in December 2017.

You may say you respect and appreciate your employees (your team) but are you showing it through your actions?

The leaders I have always responded well to are the ones who care for the people they are responsible for and model noble behavior. They show that leadership is more than being in front and certainly more than about themselves.

A simple way to put this is to lead is to serve. A basic tenet of this value set that we often practice in wildland fire is this — you don’t eat before your crew.

In the Field

Here’s how that plays out. As you grow and take on leadership roles, you are taking on more responsibility for others. By ensuring that their needs are met first and foremost, you exhibit a number of characteristics — empathy, awareness, foresight, commitment to their growth — that speak volumes in terms of support. You are showing them that you can and will provide them with the tools they need to get the job done.

When we say don’t eat before your crew, in part we’re speaking literally. In a crew of 20, the leaders will bring up the rear in the chow line. Practically it can be because if they run short on food, we are ensuring that the folks who work for us are getting fed. Often times, they are the ones who need the calories most. A recent article explores this concept from the Marine Corps experience.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”- Max De Pree

In more complex operations – overseeing a group of engineers or a much larger group of folks and equipment working across sections of a fire –  I often have people who are experts in focused areas. Strategists, tacticians, equipment operators — people who know what they and their team can do and are highly skilled at doing it.

As I move up, I provide intent — define reality as Max De Pree said. I spend the rest of my time listening, guiding and then figuring out to make sure other needs are met. I build a community beyond our operational group to ensure that we don’t just meet today’s mission, but so my people are able to continue tomorrow and the next day.

Off the fire line, this happens by empowering and supporting others now and for the future.

Servant Leadership

“The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” —Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant leadership is typically one component of an overall leadership style, and it centers on responsibilities and relationships.  Do an online search for servant leadership and you will find a wide range of material.

Retired AT&T executive, Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) coined the phrase in 1970 in his essay “The Servant as Leader.”  His pioneering work culminated in the creation of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. This work has inspired military and corporate training, thoughtful articlesother institutes and further research in the decades since.

In a later work, Greenleaf frames servant-leadership this way:

It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? 

This describes a path that isn’t how many of us step into our leadership roles. It is, however, a path towards maturing our styles and a metric for assessing the success of that transition.

Lead by Exemplifying Character

In wildland fire, like a lot of other specialized fields, we can be tribal. We tend not to trust you if you haven’t done x, y or z in your career.

The fact is, you will never have a career long enough to check everyone’s different boxes for x, y or z.

So when we say lead by example, does this mean that you must always be doing or have done what you ask your team to do? No, that would be impossible.  It can even teeter you into micromanagement, one of the seven deadly sins of poor management.

Leading by example isn’t limited to a particular task, it’s more to do with your character and compassion. Supporting your team through servant leadership ultimately comes from displaying a part of your character.

In supporting your team, you are empowering them to get more done than any one of you could by yourselves. Developing servant leadership as part of your style is a natural evolution — if you are open and aware. It leads to a more holistic approach that outlasts any individual’s charisma and provides for your organization well into the future.