Killing High-Performance Teams, Part Two (AKA the priority problem)

In my last blog post, I tackled the effect that a lack of clarity has on high-performing teaming. The short summary of it is this: take away clear goals and clear roles and you will only get broken processes, poor performance, and a ton of unnecessary stress.

In this follow-up to that post, I want to spend a little bit of time on the (lack of) clarity problem’s partner in crime: the priority problem.

GoalI see this issue a lot. Leadership spews shouts communicates a goal. Let’s assume that it’s a legitimate goal (Note: this is a HUGE assumption, because most often what is communicated is NOT a goal at all – it’s usually just a metric that is supposed to be attached to a goal. Hello, sales “target.”). The goal is then widely proclaimed and possibly even put on a dashboard and a score card and a poster and an email and… You get the point. EVERYBODY knows the goal. Which if that were the only condition, then fine. My rant would be over.

BUT then, something interesting happens. ANOTHER goal is added to the dashboard/score card/email/etc. It may be complimentary to the original goal. It may not be. But it is equally important. And it is equally proclaimed – far and wide.

PrioritiesThen – you guessed it – another goal is added to the first two. Then another. And another. And another. Until there is no clear number one priority. In fact, the idea of a single priority that trumps all other priorities is completely lost. And God forbid we actually get a clear sense of the order of priority for the remaining goals. Leaders simply say, “It’s all a priority.” At which point, nothing is a priority.

Something tells me that you know exactly what I am talking about.

When this happens, there are usually one (or more) of the following causes.

The first likely cause is: You have a weak business. What I mean by his is that the actual health of your business is weak/soft. Healthy businesses – at the minimum – have good innovation, revenue, financial stewardship, legal compliance, and consistent operations. If any of these are weak, people will start trying to fix them. I specifically chose the term “people” instead of leadership because literally ANYONE will have an opinion on what needs to be done and will inject their (usually well-intentioned) thinking into goals that will “fix” the problem. Not only does this create unnecessary complexity and potential conflict (e.g. Are my revenue goals less important than my legal goals?), you get even more chaos (the bad kind) when people have not even properly defined the gap. For example, don’t fix revenue issues when a lack of innovation is the root cause. The resulting mess of competing priorities simply confuses and de-motivates your people.

Weak 1The second likely cause
is: You have weak leadership. Of course, this is a bit of “the chicken and the egg” to me. As in which comes first, weak leaders or weak business? Regardless, you will know you have weak leaders when they do things like:

  • Avoid providing clarity when asked
  • Inject extra goals to feed his/her ego
  • Get confused by all of the goals and couldn’t prioritize their way out of a small bag
  • Play politics over roles and processes instead of helping drive the right goals

If this describes your current state, I am very sorry for you. You have two good options. Change leaders or change leaders. In other words, get leadership behaviors to change or get rid of those leaders if they won’t change. The impact of weak leaders on what gets prioritized (or de-prioritized) is massive. ‘Nuff said.

And the third likely cause is: You have a weak strategy. If the strategy is (a) not addressing the gaps in your business health and/or (b) not addressing gaps in your leadership, it is weak. It is designed to look good on paper. And nothing else. It will not execute. It will only generate lots of new, competing goals that people will have to commit to in order to make sure that the real work of keeping the business afloat is done. In this scenario, even healthy attempts to drive the right priorities will get swallowed up in fatigue as people exhaust themselves to do everything. Again, no bueno.

In summary, let me put it to you this way: If you have the authority to set priorities, you have the obligation to do it well. Make sure that your business health, leadership team, and strategy are strong enough to drive clear priorities. It’s a simple concept that has dramatic implications. And if you have the desire be even more effective, drive some clarity as well.

I mua. Onward and upward.

by Tim Ohai

Killing High-Performance Teams, Part One (AKA the clarity problem)

Bad teamingIf you or your team struggle with stress, you have a clarity problem.

If you or your team struggle with conflict, you have a clarity problem.

If you or your team struggle with broken processes, you have a clarity problem.

If you or your team struggle with consistent underperformance, you have a clarity problem.

Why do I say these things are all clarity problems? Let me explain it this way.

Suppose your team has a stress problem. If you paused long enough to analyze the situation, you’ll probably find the cause of that stress to be that things aren’t going the way they are supposed to go. The flow – dare I say process – that your team is relying on to get stuff done is most likely broken. In fact, if that flow/process could get on track, the stress would likely go away.

BUT before you put your energy into fixing that process (or worse, forcing everyone to follow it dogmatically), pause and think a bit more. Are all of the roles that drive the flow/process working as they are supposed to? Are people clear on what they are responsible for? And more importantly, can everyone on the team accurately recite what everyone else’s roles are? Do people know who has veto authority and the boundaries of that authority? Because if people aren’t clear on what their role is – AND what their team mates’ roles are – not a single process will work as planned. There will be no handoffs, no teaming, no support, and ultimately no accountability to execute the process.

ClarityBUT before you put your energy into driving role clarity for everyone, pause and think a bit more. Are the goals that this team is pursuing clear? Are they aligned? Are they even the right goals? (Side thought: don’t tell me that your goal is to hit a number. Ever. That is not a goal. That is just a metric for your goal. Period.) Because if your team does not have goal clarity – the kind that drives real alignment in roles and processes – the resulting stress is not only understandable but to be expected.

And here’s the rub.


I see people pursuing the wrong goals and stressed out of their minds. I see people pursuing competing goals (and don’t even get me started on the impact of personal agendas) while consistently underperforming in unfathomable ways. I see broken processes and broken relationships – and if we can pause long enough to think about “why” – we find that a lack of clarity around goals and roles lie at the heart of pretty much all of it. Noel Tichy goes as far as saying 96% of all of this junk is created by unclear goals and unclear roles.

GrowthSo, certainly, there will be outliers that exist. But that’s irrelevant. Hypothetical what-ifs are less valuable to you than taking a hard look at the goals and roles that everyone needs to make success happen. My belief is that if you focus on clarity at this level, the stress/conflict/underperformance/etc. will go away. It will literally evaporate. Processes magically start working – and even improve. Relationships and communication breakdowns clean up. Personality wars become minimized. And you can then focus on the things that everyone truly want – high performance teaming and healthy growth.

Mirror moment: 

  1. When you look at your situation, where is the biggest root cause of malfunction? Broken processes, unclear roles, or unclear goals?
  2. If you could create massive clarity around goals (to drive alignment) and roles (to drive accountability), how much of the stress/conflict/underperformance/garbage would go away?
  3. What does this tell you?

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

The 4 EASIEST Ways to De-Motivate People

I just spent a couple of weeks with some great sales folks and their managers. And, as is often the case, I got into a side conversation about one of THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS of driving high performance: motivation.

Tired runnerIt’s classic, right? If you are the leader of a group of people – especially in the role of professional sellers – how do you keep people driven to achieve success? And more importantly, can you actually motivate someone… or are they the only ones who can be involved in the motivation process?

But I want to take a different approach to answering that question. Frankly, I think asking how to motivate someone else is the wrong question (really, you can’t motivate someone else – only they can motivate themselves – everything else is just a form of manipulation). Therefore, this rant blog post is NOT about how to motivate someone.

It’s about how to de-motivate them.

Demotivation is the exact opposite of motivation. Instead of inspiring action, one is squelching it. Turning off the will to choose. Literally crushing the desire to act.

ChainsIt is perhaps equally as powerful as motivation. Demotivation keeps poor performers (and even potentially strong performers) at the bottom of the heap. It keeps whole groups of people subconsciously in invisible chains. It keeps entire nations in submission to tyrants and despotic regimes. And, if you are a leader, you can absolutely affect someone’s de-motivation (or even be the cause of it).

Now, some of this is actually – and illogically – self-imposed. I’m not going to address that now. I want to talk about HOW people wound up demotivated in the first place. What was done to them? How could people just like you and me end up in such demotivated states?

There are typically four factors that I see as the culprit. Four specific patterns that on their own are insidious. Put a couple of them together and you’ve got a cocktail for literally sucking the soul out of living.

The first factor is task difficulty. In other words, having to do something that is just too hard to do. If someone is given a task that – no matter how many times they try – they cannot experience success, they will eventually quit. If you want to de-motivate someone, take away their tools and other resources. Force them to use a CRM a sales process an ivory tower sacred cow something that makes their job harder to accomplish.

The second factor is isolation. In other words, being left completely alone (even in a room full of people) without any feedback, encouragement, or offers to help. What’s the “big” punishment in a prison? Isolation. Why? Because it is so effective at turning someone “off.” If you want to de-motivate someone, take away the human relationships they need. And not just support functions, but also team mates.

The third factor is information overload. In other words, being given the end of a firehose of data to drink until everything becomes a “priority.” Because, then, nothing is a priority. All the information (be they emails, telecons, meetings, product specs, competitor data, etc.) is “important.” Until someone is paralyzed by it all and they cannot decide what to do. If you want to de-motivate someone, simply give them massive amounts of information and tell them to sort through it all in order to complete a task. Or worse, make them memorize and use ALL of it.

The fourth factor is unrealistic expectations. Also known as “WTH?!” and “You’ve got to be kidding me!” In other words, people are held to standards that they have no way of achieving. In this situation, they wind up living in a constant state of failure, where family reunions with unhealthy relatives are considered a “vacation.” If you want to de-motivate someone, continuously raise the bar on your expectations of someone – especially right after they achieved some measure of success.

So here’s where I go nuts. Why, oh why, do we allow these factors to be so rampant in our organizations? Why do task difficulty, isolation, information overload, and unreal expectations get such a hall pass when our leaders do them? Or worse, build them into roles and execution plans?! Ego-driven “stretch goals” anyone?

All leaders – be they leaders of businesses, government agencies, churches, or schools (and even families) – need to know these four factors of demotivation and search for them. Relentlessly hunt them down. Then squeeze the life out of each one. I’m serious. If you are a leader – or want to be one – addressing demotivation is a MANDATE.

If someone is making a team mate’s job harder than it needs to be, stop it immediately. If someone is struggling to complete the task, either coach the gap or reassign the player to a role that they can do.

If someone is isolating a team mate, especially if the offender is in an official support role (like IT, HR, or Finance), stop it immediately. Drive open the lines of information flow. And if someone is imposing their own isolation (consciously or not), stop it. Show them how to network and get connected to others.

If someone is creating information overload, stop it. Create clarity around what is important and what is not. Seek out the purely “cover your ass” stuff and eliminate it. Lead by example. And lead with accountability.

Mirror momentAnd finally, if someone is generating unreal expectations, stop it. But look in the mirror first. This one, above all others, is as tied to your credibility as anything else you do as a leader. Because once you get a reputation as “that” leader, well… you know where it goes.

Okay. I feel better now. But more importantly – do you?

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Managing Motivation

High thermometerIf you are someone who is responsible for a high-performing team, check out the full podcast I recorded with Lynn Hidy (@UpYourTeleSales) and Babette Ten Haken (@BabetteTenHaken) – plus some extra thoughts from Babette on her blog about motivation in general.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • What is the definition of motivation? It’s what drives you. It can drive you toward (as in a reward) or away (as in a fear).
  • Instead of focusing on what motivates your people (which can get really complex), focus on what de-motivates your people. Identify those things and get rid of them.
  • The four most common de-motivators are isolation, information overload, task difficulty, and unrealistic expectations.
  • If you’re trying to motivate people, it’s not about changing their drives. It’s about managing the environment that those drives are exercised (which is why you HAVE to understand de-motivation).

Now, there is MUCH more, but at least that should give you enough reason to listen to the podcast.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Podcast: The MOST Important Elements of High Performance Teaming

Football TeamThis Thursday at 1p NY Time, listen in on a great conversation I had with Lynn Hidy (@UpYourTeleSales) and Babette Ten Haken (@BabetteTenHaken): Sales Coffee Klatch Chat. We talked about the MOST important elements of high performance teaming – Goal clarity and role clarity (with a bonus on DE- motivation)‪ #‎Listen2Lynn‬

Is Your Sales Manager Worthless?

In a recent study, Gallup published a statistic that literally jarred me. According to their 2015 State of the American Manager, only 10% of all managers are what you could call “great.” Okay, fair enough. A truly great manager is rare. Makes sense – even if it seems kinda cynical.

But here is where I got stunned. Only 20% of the remaining managers have the potential of being decent.


That’s right. 70% of all American managers are literally wasting their time. And yours.

I still don’t know what to say about that.

I mean, I have huge respect for Gallup. They have consistently done excellent work over the years (most recently, the whole StrengthFinder thing – which I love – and the solid work they have done showing the lack of employee engagement in the workplace).

But forget whether it is as high as 70% for a moment. Is it reallyIn Over Head possible that the vast majority of American managers are simply in over their heads?

Well, according to their research – yes. Yes, they absolutely are.

Gallup defines great managers as having five key talents:
1) They motivate every single employee to take action and engage employees with a compelling mission and vision.
2) They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
3) They create a culture of clear accountability.
4) They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue and full transparency.
5) They make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

These five talents are, according to Gallup, the lynchpin to great business results. And apparently these talents are missing by the bucketful.

Okay, if this really interests you, go download the report here. But let’s put that research to the side for a bit.

I want to talk to those of you who are actually stuck with a worthless manager. Specifically, a worthless sales manager. Because there are all kinds of issues that you need to navigate.

If you are overseeing a worthless sales manager, what do you do?

If you are reporting to a worthless sales manager, what do you do?

If you are a teammate with a worthless sales manager, what do you do?

YOU HAVE TO KNOW THIS: They will never change. They will never figure it out. Here’s why.

They were not promoted because they were a great manager. They were promoted because Dinosaurthey achieved great sales results. At some other time. In some other economy. Perhaps in some other era (hello, Industrial Age dinosaur).

It’s the cold truth. And it’s a tale that is as old as time. The business world believes that is hasn’t fully figured out a reliable way to identify and promote the right people, so it goes back to what it believes to be true – promote your best performers and pray tell yourself that it works. Well, if Gallup is right, that is literally the dumbest idea out there. There are all kinds of implications with this approach to sourcing sales managers, but let’s stay focused on you.

You have two options.

Technically, you have way more than that, but let’s stick with being healthy about it (because ranting/whining/complaining/getting political/giving up are all options that are NOT going to help you).

You can (A) influence the situation or (B) adapt to the situation.

If you are able to influence the situation, you need to focus on three things.
1) Change the criteria for selecting sales managers. Make sure that the FIRST thing people look for in a potential manager is his/her ability to make others special – not just be special. Get your organization out of the destructive loop of promoting the “special ones” because the definition of “special” is already skewed. If you have someone who has never made other people special (their teammates, their supporting cast in Op/Customer Service/etc., and so forth), they are NOT ready to be a manager yet. Period.
2) Create opportunities for people, both current managers and people who are not managers yet, to make other people special (and I hope you are noticing the pattern here). The most frustrating thing you can do to your people is tell them that they must develop other people and then not give them the opportunity to do so. This may mean you have to restructure teams and redefine roles. But if you have the ability to influence the situation, you have to link the new definition of success with a new definition of role – and the environment to execute that role.
3) Measure the crap out of the results of these changes. And publish these metrics. But again, make sure you include metrics associated with making other people special. Measure things like employee engagement, coaching activity, unplanned employee turnover, and overall team growth. If you only measure performance outputs, you are only validating the old way of thinking. You need to get people thinking differently. And when you have these metrics, you can then build accountability around them. You can help people see what they need to do to not be worthless – or recognize that they need a different role.

(Note: I am not saying that performance outputs are unnecessary. They are vital to understand as an overall indicator of business health. I am simply saying that they don’t tell you that you have different/better manager candidates. In fact, on their own, these
metrics have been proven to produce the wrong kinds of managers.)First Things First

And, obviously, there is more involved than just focusing on making other people special. But you can probably guess that if you only source and assess sales managers who can deliver against this requirement first, you can easily figure out how to prioritize who does all of the other stuff.

If you are able to adapt to the situation, you need to focus on three things.
1) Don’t turn their problem into your problem. In other words, never accept the outcomes (or lack thereof) as your fault. Even when your worthless sales manager wants to put all of the blame on you. Taking responsibility for their dysfunction will only make the problem worse.
2) Focus on the positives. Identify what is working and what has the potential to work – even with a worthless sales manager. If your sales processes are strong, maximize them. If you have an awesome value proposition to sell, sell it with pride. If your teammates are equally committed to excellence, support them. Share best practices. Collaborate. Don’t get distracted by the negatives. They will only make you become negative – and eventually a contributor to the negativity. But focusing on the positives will help you build and maintain the inner strength you need to face a situation you can’t influence. Yet.
3) Invest in the positives. This is critical. But don’t just chase after any shiny positive thing you see. Only invest in the positives that you know will make the biggest impact with the least amount of effort/time/risk. Seriously, this is critical. If you invest in the positives that will require massive amounts of effort, time, and risk, the likelihood that you will not actually make a genuine impact is incredibly high. Go after the low hanging fruit, even when it doesn’t seem sexy. UPS famously saved millions of dollars by just eliminating left-hand turns on their delivery routes. Not sexy (especially when wearing brown shorts), but – wow – what an impact. Instead of building an über solution to a problem that has existed for years (and will likely remain for years to come), invest in a simple improvement that will make a genuine, sustainable difference in your reality. For example, don’t try to reengineer that stupid CRM that your manager keeps shoving in your face urging you to use. Perhaps creating your own sales process with our own definitions may be a better use of time. Or maybe creating some simple sales materials that you can use to increase your relevance in prospecting may be the ticket. But once you have actually built some positive momentum with your small investments of effort, you should embed the positivity. Champion it. Celebrate it. Allow it to become the kind of inspiration that other people get infected with. Because then your adaptation will transform into influence. And you can then go to work on making the problem go away, instead of simply navigating around it. Or him. Or her.

And that’s how you deal with a worthless sales manager.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Special Contribution: Motivate Your Sales Team

I was honored to be included in this article from NextGen Leads – Eight Experts Reveal How To Boost Morale On Your Sales Team. If you are trying to motivate your team, you definitely want to read this article.

The other experts included:

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

When Leaders Resist Change

I recently saw this quote from Laszlo Bock, the head of HR at Google (@LaszloBock2718): “Most organizations are designed to resist change and enfeeble employees.”


That comment just struck me. I mean, seriously? MOST organizations?

FrustrationI have worked with a bunch of organizations, from profit to non-profit, from tiny to Fortune #1. And I have found that most of them are led by positive, talented people. Are these great folks actually guilty of perpetuating what Laszlo is boldly calling out?

I would have to say… yes.

Not because I want to say it, but because if I slow it down long enough to think about it, it’s the logical conclusion.

Think about this:

  • How often do people in the frontlines offer a solution to challenge the status quo/fix a problem and get told “no” before they even get a chance to fully explain their reasoning?
  • How often do people waste their time/limit their effectiveness because of a broken process or tool?
  • How often do leaders spend time explaining why they are saying “no” versus explaining why they are saying “yes” to someone else’s idea?

You see, even if you are a leader who is positive, talented, and Decision makinggenuinely trying to do the right thing… even if you have analyzed the core problem(s) and put a lot of resources into defining a great solution… even if you spend time developing a handful of people to increase their leadership capacity… IF YOU ARE THE PERSON MAKING ALL OF THE KEY DECISIONS, YOU ARE RESISTING CHANGE AND ENFEEBLING EMPLOYEES.

Let me explain.

There is way too much data and research that supports the power of real collaboration, of bringing the frontline into topline discussions about improvements and innovations. This is a fact. But when we, as leaders (and I am looking into my own mirror here), take over the entire decision-making process, we are setting ourselves up to limit – and even disregard – inputs from our team.

In other words, why would our direct reports suggest ideas and innovations to us when we always explain why we can’t do them? Why would our teams offer to take on more responsibility if we aren’t going to actually empower them? Do we actually think we know EVERYTHING? How absolutely arrogant.

There is no way that any of us could possibly know everything. Nor is it possible that we could make the right decision on every topic, especially since we aren’t experts on every topic.

What we, as leaders, should do must do is build the system so that we can collect the inputs and ideas from our frontlines so that we can guide them, not shut them off. We want to empower healthy decision-making throughout the organization. This means that we have to change our entire process of setting the overall strategy. Instead of casting a vision like some egomaniacal copy of a popular culture icon glorified hero of the battlefield and building a detailed strategy for everyone to execute, we need to build a vision with our folks, pulling them in from the very beginning and creating a clear definition of success that you can release everyone to pursue in a way that allows freedom, learning, and collective success. This is the approach when you want to create long-term, sustainable growth – not short-term, limited focus, battlefield wins. Which is why the American military has always suffered when it tries to occupy and manage long-term. You can’t use military strategy, as cool as that sounds, to succeed in long-term efforts. Military strategy is not designed to do anything but make the conflict as short as possible.

(Side thought: people immediately think that military strategy is the ONLY definition of strategy – which it isn’t. You know that, right?)

This different approach means that your team will likely make mistakes, and even FAIL, but if you have set failure up as a part of the path to excellence, as part of the path to long-term growth, the team will get there. If you have set failure up as something to be avoided at all costs, the team will NEVER achieve the vision because they will hold back when taking a risk is the right choice to make.

Instead of gambling on the extra effort to score, they will punt. Every time.

And here’s the rub. The systems, processes, tools, and metrics that we so proudly hold up Expiredas the way that we enable people are actually the devices that are used to identify failure so that it can be punished. Enfeebling everyone. Making people hide their mistakes, avoid attention, and ignore opportunities to change. We wind up with a culture that embeds the status quo. That perpetuates it. Even when the status quo has gone long past its expiration date. If anything defines the idea of resisting change, this is it.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

How to Deal with DIFFICULT Prospects/Clients

For the second week in a row, I have been a guest on a great podcast. This time, it was “The Word: A Jolt of Sales 411” with top sales blogger (and buddy) Jim Keenan (@Keenan). BONUS: another friend and top sales expert, Anthony Iannarino (@Iannarino), was our partner in crime. Tune into this VERY informative and entertaining video here.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai