About Jon Rennie

After serving as a U.S. Naval Officer and more than 20 years of leading industrial businesses in North America, I’ve learned one thing – Leadership Matters.

10 Steps to Survive and Thrive in Your First Leadership Job

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I had all the wisdom of a 23-year-old and all the experience of a junior officer who spent the past year in Naval training schools. In other words, I had no idea what I was doing. But I was in charge.

My first leadership job was taking over the Reactor Controls Department on the nuclear submarine, USS Tennessee. I had 6 or 7 guys reporting to me including a Chief Petty Officer who had joined the Navy when I was still in elementary school. My team knew vastly more than I did, yet in the wisdom of the U.S. Navy, I was assigned to lead them on our next deployment.

This same scene plays out countless times each day in businesses across the country when a new leader gets their first leadership assignment.

So how do you do it? How do you lead when you’ve never led before? How do you lead people who are older and have more experience than you? How do keep from looking foolish?

After leading men and women in the military and in business for the past 28 years, I believe there are some things that are essential for a young leader to do to earn the respect of their team. These techniques work for an experienced leader taking on a new team as well.

Get out of the office. The most important step is to get out of your office and go to where your people are. This allows you to observe your team and their work environment. It also makes you visible as well.

Set the tone. Do something very early to set the tone. In one manufacturing plant, I eliminated the reserved parking spaces for managers. In another, I addressed an obvious safety problem. Show your team what your values are early by taking a stand on something that doesn’t meet your standards.

Listen to employees. This is simple but it is often overlooked. Meet with your employees both at their work stations and privately. Get to know them and find out how things are going. Listen to them. Observe what is working well and what needs to be fixed. You will be surprised by the common themes you hear.

Visit customers. Seek out the people that your business or department considers a customer. Depending on your role, they could be actual customers or another department. Learn what your customers like about your team and listen to their concerns.

Evaluate your team. Begin assessing your team members. Who are the thought leaders? Who are the influencers? Who has the most respect from their peers? Who is going to be an early adopter to your leadership style? Who is going to resist you? Understanding your team and the potential dynamics will be important as you begin to roll out new initiatives.

Find a senior advisor. Look for someone on your team who will give you honest feedback on your performance and how it is impacting the team. This is often a senior employee who is not looking to be a manager and is well respected by their peers.

Fix the biggest problems. As you get to know your people, you will find a general consensus about several big problems they are facing. Attacking and fixing these issues early will garner their respect. As a leader, there are some problems only you can address.

Cast a vision. As you understand the directives of your boss, the capabilities of your people, and the feedback from customers, it is important to cast a vision of where you want your team to go. Leaders need to establish the vision and direction early. Even if the details are not firm, cast a vision to inspire them.

Look for early wins. Look for opportunities to gain an early victory to demonstrate your vision can be achieved. As an example, I had a manufacturing plant that shipped 80% of its revenue in the last week of every month. It was chaos in that last week and, I was told, it couldn’t be fixed. I set a goal to level-load the plant and ship 25% of the monthly revenue each week. It took several months, but we finally hit the weekly target. After that, there was an overall feeling we could finally fix the problem.

Celebrate successes. Confirm the importance of goal achievement by celebrating successes. Have a party when you hit your big goals. I once promised a lobster and steak dinner to a workforce of about 250 people when we reached a million hours without a lost time accident. When we hit the goal, we flew 500 lobsters in from Maine and had a big party to celebrate.

If you follow these steps and use a little common sense, you can be a great leader despite having no leadership experience. Leadership is a people business. Getting to know your team and listening to their feedback is critical. It’s also important to lead by example by being on-time, working hard, and showing respect.

What do you think? Have you used some of these techniques? How did it work? What is some other advice that can help young leaders? Have you seen young leaders fail? What did they do wrong? What are some pitfalls to avoid? Let me know in the comment section below.

Great Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Love Their Teams

Love their Team TwitterOne frustrating thing I see in leaders from time to time is a negative attitude towards people. Many choose a career in leadership who don’t like dealing with people. Unfortunately, they usually find they are less effective as a leader with this mindset. The reason is that leadership is inherently a people business.

“Leadership is a people business.”

The entire role of a leader is to motivate a team of people towards accomplishing an objective. Great leaders know that. They also know people are messy. People have issues, problems, emotions, quirks, hang-ups, baggage, and can be unpredictable. A great leader can see past the flaws, love their people, and motivate them to do great things. In my opinion, you can’t be a great leader if you don’t love people.

“Great leaders actually love their teams more than they love themselves.” Donald Miller

Donald Miller, founder and CEO of Storybrand, sees it the same way. I like his thoughts on this subject as he reflects on the culture he built at his company. One of the core values he put in place was to “make his employees’ dreams come true by serving clients faithfully.”  I thought it was interesting that he purposely intertwined serving customers with the dreams of his employees. In his view, loving your employees means helping reach their full potential.

“Great leaders can see the greatness in others when they can’t see it themselves and lead them to their highest potential they don’t even know.” Roy T. Bennett

Miller credits the growth of his company to the “secret ingredient” of love. Things changed at his company as they started to live out these core values. As he loved and respected his employees, they loved each other, and they worked as a team to better serve customers. He built a culture of respect with a foundation in love.

He explains that love can be quite scary, though:

Love doesn’t give you complete control over people. Love means you can’t disrespect them when you’re frustrated. Love means you really understand that people aren’t just a cog in a wheel. Love means you have to allow people to hurt you and let you down, and they will, just as you will them. But love also means you forgive, you don’t keep score, you show grace and you protect each other at all costs.

 And sometimes, protecting people means you have to let some people go. People that don’t fit into the culture or try and take advantage of the environment need to be dealt with. The sooner you address it, the better it is for that employee and the rest of the team.

He has two fundamental rules which has helped him create a culture of love and respect:

  1. Hire people who are better, smarter and faster than you.
  2. Never mess with their hearts.

What do you think? Does love belong in the workplace? Can a culture of love and respect boost a company’s performance? How will employees react when they feel their boss truly cares about their hopes and dreams? Why don’t more leaders practice this? Let me know in the comment section below.

Remembering 9/11: Lessons in Crisis Leadership

Patriot Day

The world changed on September 11, 2001. And as a leader, I changed too.

I was seven years out of the Navy and leading my first manufacturing plant. My time in the military was over and I had started a new career running a factory which made products for the electric utility industry.  The world was relatively peaceful and, as a former Cold War submarine officer, I felt like I had done my small part to make it that way. My life was business and manufacturing now, military life was in the past.

On that fateful morning, my assistant came into my office and told me I needed to get to the cafeteria quickly. I wasn’t sure what was happening but I ran down to see. I had recently installed TVs in our break room so employees could watch the news during their down time. I arrived to see the first World Trade Center tower burning from an apparent plane crash. Like many, I watched in horror as the second plane hit the other tower on live TV.

I was trying to come to grips with what I was seeing when I was suddenly struck with the realization that none of my 160 employees even knew what was unfolding in New York City. Something bad was happening and I needed to let them know right away. Maybe my military training kicked in or maybe I just knew people needed to hear this terrible news directly from their boss.

I didn’t have a 1MC loudspeaker system like I had in the Navy to inform the crew of critical information, so I improvised. I had the supervisors gather all the employees to the front of the plant where we had some extra space. I climbed into a scissor lift and raised myself up so everyone could see me.

I proceeded to tell them everything that was happening and all the limited information I knew. I saw the shocked faces and the looks of disbelief. I was struck with emotion and I asked everyone to bow their heads. I said a small prayer for the people of New York. I then told everyone to go to the cafeteria to see for themselves. I went as well.

In the days and weeks following, I saw amazing examples of leadership and I learned the importance of crisis communications. I saw New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, everywhere. He held press conferences, met with reporters, and talked to people on the streets. Still covered in dust from the towers, he told the world what he knew and what the city was doing in response to the attack. When asked how many were feared dead, he responded emotionally, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”

A few days after the attack, I watched President Bush tour ground zero. I watched his emotion as he grabbed a bullhorn and climbed a pile of rubble. With an arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith, he probably gave the best speech of his life. “I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

I never thought much about crisis leadership before 9/11. The events of that day and the weeks that followed made me realize its importance. When everything goes wrong, people look to their leaders for answers, guidance, and reassurance. In an instant, the leader’s role changes when a crisis occurs. If you find yourself in this situation, remember these three simple principles:

Be present. The most important thing is to be there. Like Rudy Giuliani, people need to see us. We need to be where our people are. They need to talk to us. We need to answer their questions and let them know what to do. In a crisis, a leader’s role changes. Like President Bush, we need to get out of our offices and go to ground zero.

Be honest. In the middle of a crisis, when very little is known, people have a lot of questions. As leaders, we often don’t have the answers and that’s alright. The most important thing is to be honest and tell people what you know and what they need to do. In most cases, the information will change. So, like Giuliani, provide regular updates to let your team know what is going on.

Be real. Crisis communications needs to be authentic. When things are going bad, you need to have a real dialogue with your team. This is not a time for polished speeches. Let them know how you feel and don’t be afraid to show your emotions. The last thing people need to see in a crisis is an unemotional, uncaring leader.

Patriot Day is a National Day of Service and Remembrance where we remember and honor those who were lost on 9/11. We honor the heroes who ran into burning buildings, the passengers who stormed the cockpit, the men and women serving their country when the Pentagon was attacked, and all the innocent lives who were lost.

Like many, I was forever changed by the events that day. As America was pulled into a war against a new global enemy, I learned I was underprepared to handle a crisis as a civilian leader. I discovered how important crisis leadership is. I know now that, in an instant, a leader’s role can drastically change. I observed great examples of crisis leadership and I learned what to do when the next time a crisis hits.

What do you think? Do you know how you will react as a leader in the next crisis? Do you train for crisis management and communications? What other leadership lessons can we learn from the events of 9/11? Let me know in the comment section below.

The Truth about Authenticity

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While fake news is often hard to spot, phony advertising, inauthentic companies, and fake people aren’t.

I was listening to my favorite podcast the other day and I heard it. I wasn’t listening for it, but it was obvious. Commercials on podcasts usually involve the host telling you how great a product or service is. It’s typically something they have used personally and they give you their own perspective. It’s almost like an endorsement, so advertisers normally give the host freedom to ad-lib. The result is an advertising segment that seems genuine and authentic.

That’s why it stood out to me when the host of the podcast read this advertisement segment verbatim. It was for the new Toyota CH-R. The ad seemed like it was written by a high-priced Madison Avenue firm. Every word was carefully selected, the message was perfectly crafted, and it was likely focus-tested to provoke a picture-perfect response. The host even read the flawless, well-written legal disclaimer at the end. To me, it sounded phony.

In the podcast world of personal-endorsement-style advertisements, this one felt fake. It didn’t seem truthful or genuine. It was over-produced, over-engineered, and too perfect. It wasn’t real.

“There’s authenticity in a first take.” Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame would agree. He made a living off being “authentic.” He said, “Dirty Jobs didn’t resonate because the host was incredibly charming. It wasn’t a hit because it was gross, or irreverent, or funny, or silly, or smart, or terribly clever. Dirty Jobs succeeded because it was authentic.” The show was the first of its kind. There was no script, no rehearsal, and only one take. They turned the cameras on and Mike responded and reacted to his environment. It was genuine and people loved it.

“I believe the enemies of charm are deliberateness in much the same way I would argue that the enemies of authenticity are production.” Mike Rowe

Companies can also be inauthentic when they aren’t true to their message. Think about Subway restaurants. They’ve used the advertising slogan, “Eat Fresh,” since 2002. They came under fire when it was discovered they used azodicarbonamide in their bread as a conditioner. Food blogger Vani Hari, of the popular food blog Food Babe, originally drew public attention to this issue. She revealed that azodicarbonamide was the same chemical used in yoga mats and shoe rubber. In 2014, after public pressure grew, Subway stopped using the chemical in their bread recipes.

But the damage to Subway was done. Subway’s sales fell. They lost 3% in 2014, despite opening 778 new stores. They faced eroding public perception regarding the quality of their food while still using the “Eat Fresh” slogan. The main reason they lost consumer confidence was because they were seen as phony and inauthentic. You can’t claim “Eat Fresh” and use a yoga mat chemical in your bread.

People can be fake as well. People who make promises with no intention to keep them, those that make friendships only for personal gain, or those that have hidden agendas are seen as shallow and phony. You can probably name people with these qualities where you work. They can be successful in the short term but only until people learn their true character. Then, no one wants to work with them.

“People with good intentions make promises, but people with good character keep them.” Anonymous

In a world where we are surrounded by phony people and messages, how can we be more authentic? Let me suggest three things.

Be true to the first take. Avoid over-processing and over-engineering your message. A product training video, for example, that has a few mistakes seems more real than one that has been carefully edited. A quick, witty tweet delivered at the right time will get more attention than a perfectly polished post. We are bombarded daily with highly-engineered, focus-group tested messages. An honest first-take is refreshing and seems more authentic.

Be true to your company promise. What does your company stand for? What is the brand promise? Whatever it is, make sure you are delivering to that promise. If you commit to 24 hour deliveries, make sure you are built for speed. If you promise the “lowest prices,” make sure you know that’s true. If you claim “eat fresh,” then know what’s in your recipes. Being true to your brand promise will make you appear more authentic.

Be true to others. Nobody wants a fake friend. Be real. If you make a promise, deliver on it. Build relationships based on mutual respect not hidden agendas and personal gain. Be there for people in the good times as well as the bad. Put others ahead of yourself. Don’t talk behind their backs. Show respect for everyone on your team. Being true to others and being a person of character will make you more authentic.

Let’s get rid of fake news and, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of phony advertising, untruthful companies, and fake people. Authenticity is rare. We will stand out if we embrace reality and stop being so over-engineered on fake. Embrace your genuine self, be original, and see what happens. It certainly worked for Mike Rowe.

What do you think? Does authenticity stand a chance today? Are there other reasons why “Dirty Jobs” had such mass appeal? How can we employ authenticity in our messaging? What are some other examples of authentic or inauthentic companies? What was the result? Let me know in the comment section below.

3 Reasons Why Leaders Need a No Whining Policy

5226742 - of nine month baby crying, isolatedWhen Pope Francis tells you to stop whining, you know there is power in the message. Since becoming the new pope, Francis has been a model of humility, empathy, and compassion. It’s obvious he cares deeply for people, especially the poor and oppressed. But a few weeks back, he did something that made headlines. He installed a sign on the door of his private apartment at the Vatican that essentially says, “No Whining.”

This powerful statement from one of the world’s most influential leaders made me think about the concept of “victimhood.” As leaders, we know the importance of listening and empathy. We know that caring for people and their needs creates a better work environment. But, what if we allow it to go too far? What if, out of compassion, we allow whining and complaining to get out of control?

The answer comes from the fine print in the Pope’s new sign. According to Reuters, the sign warns that continued whining leads to a mentality of “always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humor and capacity to solve problems.” It then reminds the reader that “to get the best out of yourself, concentrate on your potential and not on your limitations…stop complaining and take steps to improve your life.”

“Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining – it bores everybody else, does you no good, and doesn’t solve any problems.” Zig Ziglar

Leaders need to be good listeners but, as Pope Francis reminds us, we need to watch out for excessive complaining. We need to avoid situations where people become victims, losing their capacity to solve problems. A “no whining” policy will help our organizations in three distinct ways.

Whining drains energy. Valid concerns from employees who care and want to make things better are good. But constant complaining from those who seem to be perpetually unhappy drains the energy of the team. Whiners want to be heard but they don’t necessarily want things fixed. Their negative attitude affects everyone around them and hurts the team’s morale. Leaders need to recognize this and intervene.

“Complaining not only ruins everybody else’s day, it ruins the complainer’s day, too. The more we complain, the more unhappy we get.” Dennis Prager

Whining reinforces a victim mentality. A victim mentality is formed when someone sees themselves as a sufferer of the negative action of others. Victims feel powerless to affect their circumstances. As leaders, if we accept the constant whining and complaining of employees, we help reinforce their condition. They will lose the capacity to solve their own problems. Instead, we should challenge these employees and ask them what they are going to do to get out of their situation.

Whining is selfish. Whiners are focused on themselves and their negative circumstances. Their “woe is me” attitude leaves little room for them to care about others and the job at hand. In an organization, this is detrimental to good teamwork. It’s the role of the leader to observe this behavior and confront it. Focus the whiner on tasks that will help others or the goals of the organization.

Leadership is a people business. We know that caring for people and their needs creates a better work environment. But, as Pope Francis points out, we can’t let whining and complaining get out of control. Perpetual complainers, if not confronted, will drain the energy of a team. We also run the risk of prolonging their victim mentality. In the end, whining and complaining are selfish acts that run counter to good teamwork and goal achievement. A “no whining” policy is essential to a well-run organization.

What do you think? What’s it like to work around people who are constantly complaining? What happens if that behavior is not confronted? Have you confronted whiners? How did that affect them and the organization? Let me know in the comment section below.