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Michael Bushong

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8 red flags that might suggest you aren’t leading effectively

www-St-Takla-org___Ducklings-Crossing-the-RoadImagine a room full of key functional leads at your company. They are sitting around a conference room table when someone from outside the company whom they have never met walks in. The woman asks them "So, what do you do at this company?" This kicks off a somewhat informal introduction that might look like:

"Hi, I'm Steven. I run engineering."
"I'm Laura. I'm the VP of product management."
"My name is Stacy. I have all the finance and operations responsibilities."
"And I'm John. I am the head of sales."

This type of exchange wouldn't even phase most people. It is exactly what you would expect to hear in a conversation like this. And this type of conversation is exactly why leadership is so lacking at so many companies.

When people ask me what I do, my answer is closer to "I am an executive leader at Plexxi. I also run the marketing organization."

My primary responsibility is to lead. The function that I lead provides context. But make no mistake about it – that context is subordinate to what I do, not the other way around. I am absolutely expected to lead in whatever I am doing, be it marketing or something else.

And this is not unique to me. Nor is this unique to executive level positions. If you are in a leadership position – ANY leadership position – your job is to lead. You might lead a particular team or a particular project. You might just lead a specific outcome. But whatever the context, if you are a leader, your responsibility is to lead.

I mention this because it is all too common that people forget what it is they are expected to do. Leadership ceases to be a thing that you do. Instead, leadership is relegated to some in-between task that you do when you are not busy doing whatever else you consider your primary responsibility to be. 

And so with that, let me tell you the top 8 red flags that you might not be leading effectively:

1 – You compare leadership to your day job. Have you ever talked to someone who is doing some leadership thing and they refer to their day job? The very term day job is used to suggest that there are top-tier priorities and second-class priorities. If leadership is a second-class priority for someone, they aren't leading effectively. If you are a real leader, mentoring, inspiring, motivating, and otherwise leading is your day job. Suggesting anything else simply demonstrates a lack of understanding and should be a big red flag.

2 – You schedule an all-hands meeting because you want to improve communication. The primary job of a leader is to lead. And you cannot lead if people cannot follow. The most important thing a leader can do is communicate. If you think that communication is an event that can be scheduled, you are likely underestimating its importance. Communication is a daily activity. It happens perpetually. Things that are important need to be part of your daily dialogue. If you believe you can deliver a couple of well-crafted sentences 4 times a year in an auditorium and get away with ignoring the other 361 days a year, you might not be leading effectively. 

3 – You conduct regular skip-level meetings to get to know your teams. Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Each person is unique. If you really want to get to know them, you have to spend time with them. And doing this once every blue moon does not constitute spending time with someone. Sure, skip-levels are a great way for people to listen to your priorities, but they don't allow you to actually listen to your team. They tend to be dominated by one or two brave souls who ask one or two tough questions. There is nothing genuine in this exchange. Neither the team nor the leader feel any more connected after these meetings than they did before these meetings. They provide some temporary cathartic release at best. That's not to say that these are not useful tools, but do not be lulled into thinking that these connect you with your teams. Rather than scheduled get-together time, try leaving your calendar open for regular Office Hours each week. You might find that the drop-ins are a useful way to let people to talk to you on their terms.

4 – You refer to dynamics in the workplace as politics. I hear people talk about politics a lot. I don't understand it. I don't see politics; I see all kinds of human interaction. When you write off as politics people's desires, ambitions, needs, and insecurities, you are discounting the very real emotions that sit behind them. You cannot be at once an effective leader and dismissive of other people. The two are not compatible. The fact is that we are all human, and if you cannot see humanness in even your most reviled fellow workers, there is no way you are an effective leader. 

5 – You believe you can talk one way behind closed doors and another in public. I used to think this way. I thought that I could judge people privately but carry on publicly as if nothing was going on. I thought I could hate plans when I was behind my office door but be fully supportive when in public. It just doesn't work that way. People around you notice your body language. You might think you are hiding something, but all you are doing is fooling yourself. Your team will key off of subtleties in your behavior. If you believe one thing but represent another, you are failing at leadership. Your teams deserve honesty. No one follows a leader they do not trust.

6 – You think that review time is a chore. When annual reviews come around, you might get frustrated at the thought of having to make up a bunch of tripe to fill the HR folders. If this is you, you might not be leading. Reviews are just explicit times to provide feedback. If you are providing feedback perpetually as part of your daily dialogue with your teams, reviews simply act as a snapshot of your feedback. It should come effortlessly because it is an extension of your routine. If you view them as a chore, it could be that you aren't providing enough explicit feedback to be effectively leading.

7 – You describe your team as low maintenance. There was a time that I used to think my employees were low maintenance. It was great! It relieved me of my responsibility to get to know them, understand them, give feedback to them, and basically lead them. News flash: even people who do not like to be constantly micromanaged do like to get feedback. They like to know that their contributions matter. They want to know when they do something well, and even when they fail. The most senior people in the organization (Distinguished Engineers for those of you in technology) have the same basic cravings as the rest of us. We are all human. If you have described your team as low maintenance, could it be that you are using the descriptor to shirk your leadership responsibilities?

8 – You use terms like "shine a light on it". Imagine a scenario where product quality is in the tubes. You declare that engineers must fix bugs! But a week later, the bugs aren't closing fast enough, so you institute the weekly bug scrub, soon to be followed by daily updates. This never works. Imagine that I am in my kitchen cleaning after a dinner party with my in-laws. My mother-in-law points out that I missed a spot. And another one. And oh, another one over there. Do I clean faster? Hell no. I clean slower. The problem is not that I don't know where to clean. Having her point out all the things I know I need to do just makes me despise the task. So tell me what will happen if I remind an engineer everyday that he has a bug assigned to him. Hint: that's not leading. And it isn't helpful either.

There are probably another 50 signs that I could put out there. The point here is that leadership is not an outcome that just shows up when you do your day job. It is an explicit set of activities, consciously and dutifully executed each and every single day. If you take your leadership responsibilities seriously, they become the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about each day. They are not mere afterthoughts that act as the sand that fills in the cracks between your otherwise busy day. The moment that you treat leadership like filler is the moment that you officially have ceased being a leader. And with leadership, once you lose the plot, it can be very difficult to get it back. 

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The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."