Letter to Leaders – September 30, 2020

Tomorrow, the final quarter of the year begins. For lots of people, the year’s end can’t some soon enough. For others, it’s more of “what else can this year throw at us?”

It still seems surreal to me. I mean, it doesn’t feel the same:

  • I’m working, but it doesn’t feel the same.
  • I’m watching sports on TV, but it’s not the same.
  • We’re starting to do more things outside the home, but it doesn’t feel the same.

I guess that’s the point of a post-COVID world. It won’t feel the same, but eventually it will feel more….normal. This epidemic has tested and re-defined resilience like nothing else ever has.

I spoke yesterday to a friend who happens to be a client. His call on a Friday in early March (“I have to lay off all my staff on Monday”) jolted me into the COVID reality. His company revenue dropped 90% from March to July. Now he and his team have developed a plan (with complete buy-in) that expects to double their 2019 revenue in 2021. Now that’s resilience.

What if I told you last year that within six months, the vast majority of businesses would have more employees working from home than in the office? You’d think me crazy, right? Or that we’d all be wearing masks?

Someone I admire, Peter Shankman, says that “there are no more rules.” As a result, there’s never been a better time to try a new idea, move to a new location, or develop a new skill. Or maybe just do what we do better than ever before. It might require a new mindset or a re-focus. But when there are no more norms, opportunities are endless.

So get focused, stay safe, and I’ll see you around.

“It’s Never Going To Be The Same” – No Kidding.

I’m getting tired of hearing “it’s never going to be the same” as if the status quo and the way we’ve always done things has never changed in our lifetimes. It’s changed constantly. It would’ve changed significantly even if there had not been a pandemic.

People fear change because it moves us from the known to the unknown. But change has happened consistently since time began, and guess what: it’s gonna change again.

Remember flying before 9/11? The check-in and security process changed after that, didn’t it. We got used to it, and now it’s normalized.

Remember television prior to streaming? Prior to cable? When there were only 13 channels? Or maybe you remember (like I do) when there was black-and-white only and no remote control?

Are you doing the same work you did 5 years ago? Using the same tools, communication devices? What about the people who work with you? Any of them leave in the past 5 or 10 years?

Point is, nothing is ever going to be the same again because nothing is now the same as it was before. What makes the human species (and much of nature) unique is that we adopt to change. Doesn’t mean we have to particularly like it, but we adopt.

So if you’re scared of the fact that it’s never going to be the same, get over yourself. Your success in life or school or your chosen profession is not based on whether or not there is change, but how you adopt to it. How well you adopt, how easy it is for you adopt, and what your attitude about the new world is.

The great Dan Sullivan, “You have no responsibility for what’s happening in the outside world, but you have 100% responsibility for how you respond to it.”

It’s OK to look to the past and remember what was, but don’t live there. There is only now, and what will be.

How I Learned To Delegate


The best lesson I ever learned on delegation came in 1997.  I was running teams for AAA (the Automobile Club) in our Burbank and Glendale offices.  These teams were comprised of outside salespeople (who sold AAA memberships, auto & homeowner’s insurance) and inside salespeople, who handled existing policyholder issues by phone and walk-ins.

Our team was a really top-performing team – probably in the top 5 out of 100 in the company in terms of sales and volume.

But the single biggest frustration I had was on Fridays.  All the big member issues, complaints and problems somehow always hit on Friday afternoons.  Time and time again, I had to intervene and handle these major complaints, and it was sucking the life out of me.  Between dealing with an angry customer, trying to navigate the corporate bureaucracy to get resolutions to the problem, and bringing the issue to  completion was exhausting, to say the least.  On a day – Friday – where I should have been spending time congratulating my team for their accomplishments, I was on hold waiting to talk to an underwriter about why a car didn’t get properly added to Mr. Johnson’s automobile insurance policy.

My boss had a suggestion.  He reminded me the team was really successful, that he knew I was working hard, so he said, “next Friday at lunch – go to the beach and take the rest of the day off.”

That sort of thing never happened at AAA back then (or, as far as I know, even today).  We were supposed to be in our offices every day from 8-5.  And remember – this was 1997.  No one really had cell phones and e-mail was a couple of years away.  I loved the beach – still do – but I was freaking out.  Who would handle the complaints? How bad would my desk look when I returned to work on Monday?

But I was grasping at straws, so I agreed.  On Friday morning, I told two of my supervisors that I’d be out of the office that afternoon and unavailable.  And, I went down to the beach.

It was not a relaxing afternoon at the beach.  Actually, the entire weekend was not pleasant: I was determined not to go in to the office on Saturday or Sunday, but was dreading Monday morning.  How many voice mails and customer complaints would be waiting for me when I returned?

Turns out, there were no voice mails.  There were no unresolved customer complaints on my desk.  I was shocked.  Was it possible there were no complaints at all on Friday?  It couldn’t possibly be true!

And it wasn’t.  In checking with my supervisors, there were still plenty of problems.  But without me there, they simply solved the issues themselves.  Everything was taken care of.

That one afternoon off transformed my way of thinking about delegation.

  • When you as a leader are not available, your good employees will step up if you empower them. Leave the office and untether for a day.  See what happens.
  • You are not essential to the everyday operation of your team 24/7. (If you are, then you’re doing it wrong).
  • A great way to identify leaders is to find out who steps up when you’re not there.
  • The key to a Self-Managing Team is not delegation, it’s empowerment. Let them make decisions and take responsibility.

That afternoon off, more than 20 years ago, is analogous to a few days off without e-mail today.  If you do it properly, it can be done.  So do it!

The Best Performance Review I’ve Ever Seen

Ditch the old way you’ve been doing things and get back to basics.  Performance metrics should set your standard, so people will do the things you actually want them to do.


Boy, have I seen a lot of performance reviews.  They’re basically the same things over and over.  And we get an inordinate number of questions from clients asking for “a sample performance review template” they can emulate in their own business.  Many executives have always managed and evaluated this way, to say nothing of how we pay and promote.

Yet in the past few years away, there’s been a shift away from performance reviews, which is completely understandable.

Performance reviews don’t work because we don’t ask employees what they do to advance our organizational and managerial goals.  We’re not specific enough.  So maybe I should revise that comment accordingly: Performance reviews don’t work as they’re currently devised.

The Importance of Expectations

My experience is that most e­­mployees do pretty well at hitting objectives if they know the specifics that are expected of them.

But here’s the problem: Managers and executives do a lousy job of setting expectations.

Think about it: If employees are going to be evaluated based on attendance and productivity, they deserve to understand why.  “Why do I need to be on time?  I get my work done, so why does it matter?”

Businesses do a great job of creating volumes of requirements for employees; there’s seemingly a rule for everything.  But why?  How do those requirements help us reach our individual goals?

Subjective vs Objective

The CFOs of the world tell us that performance reviews are necessary because they’re objective. When we attribute numbers to the results, we objectively give raises and bonuses and measure performances.

This ideology buys into what I call The Myth of ObjectivityTM.  Of course, everyone (especially CFOs) would love to see performances broken down into averages, medians, and charts.  But that’s not objective.

When a manager reviews an employee’s performance, what really creates the difference between a 3.5 and a 4.0?

Answer: nothing.  Therefore, the rating system isn’t objective after all.  And since it’s subjective, it basically defeats the purpose of having a performance review to begin with.

(Yes, I know that ratings can effectively motivate salespeople and workers with repetitious jobs such as manufacturing, but the latter will disappear soon, due to AI and robotics.)

The Best of the Best

The CEO of at an insurance brokerage firm in Pasadena, CA, wrote the best performance review I’ve ever seen.  I was sitting in a meeting with the CEO and his executive assistant, and we were reviewing our punch list.  I could tell the CEO was getting a bit impatient, so I made this suggestion: “Let’s take a break. My team can finish everything on our own.”

Greg brightened up after I made my suggestion, and asked his assistant, “Remember what your performance is based on?”  She nodded.

Now he’d piqued my curiosity.  “What’s your performance based on?” I asked her.

“My performance and salary increase are based on the number of times Greg gets to golf every month,” she said.  “If he plays at least eight times a month, I get a good performance review and a 10% salary increase at the end of the year.”

Then it hit me.  It was the perfect performance review!  I know many HR veterans are undoubtedly recovering from their fainting spells, but hear me out:

  • The criteria were clear.

Melissa understood exactly what was expected of her, and she was easily able to repeat her goals.

  • The goal was measurable.

Eight rounds of golf per month (or 96 per year)

  • It advanced the executive’s goals and objectives.

Greg wanted to golf. It was a personal goal, and it was important to him.  [Pro Tip: If you want people to do something, incentivize them.]

  • It allowed a talented person to innovate and work autonomously.

For Greg, it didn’t matter how Melissa got him out on the golf course, just that she made  it happen.  So her performance wasn’t tied up in minutiae; it was solely focused on the end result. In other words, she had permission to do whatever she needed to do to get him golfing.

Melissa became a more effective assistant, because every interaction she had factored into that goal.  And she was a much more effective gatekeeper.  (“Does that person really need to have a meeting with Greg, or can I handle it?”)


Rethink your 15-page form for performance reviews.  What do you truly want that person to do?  What’s the end goal?  Can’t we simplify things, and make our objectives attainable, measurable, and real?  The answer: Yes, we can.  But then the question becomes, “Are we willing to break through the mentality that We’ve always Done It This Way?”

Over the next decade, businesses who are willing and able to change are going to become winners. Your formula for success doesn’t involve being stuck in the past.

On Business, Leadership & The Stanley Cup

To know me is to know I’m a hockey fan. I went to my first game at the age of 8, in 1970.   I’ve been a fan of Los Angeles Kings, a team that had an unsurpassed history of futility since their  founding in 1967.  To be a Kings fan is to live with a lifetime of frustration, a lot of hope, and not much else.

This spring, however, something unusual happened.  The Kings not only made it to the playoffs, they won the Holy Grail of hockey: The Stanley Cup.  A team that was nowhere in December made an epic move through the last third of the season, culminating in an unprecedented run through the playoffs to win hockey’s Championship.

To know me is to also know I’m a fan of great leadership and management; it’s my career.  Since June 11 (the night the Kings won the Cup at Staples Center), I’ve been thinking about what the Kings did to transform their entire organization from a history of “almosts” and ‘could haves’ into a Stanley Cup champion.  And I realized that what the Kings did can apply to any manager, CEO, or business. 

So, in no particular order, here are the reasons the Kings won the Stanley Cup and how you can apply those lessons to your own business.

#1: Switch in coaches
On December 12, 2011, the Kings fired their coach about one-third into the season.

Sometimes a coach or manager can only take a team to a certain level. And then, you need someone else to take the team to next level. Prior to the season, the Kings were favored to be a contender for the Stanley Cup.  But three months into the year, they were mired in 12th place in the Western Conference and last in the entire league in goals scored.  After losing four games in a row, General Manager Dean Lombardi fired Terry Murray.

During his four year tenure, Murray did a marvelous job teaching fundamental defense to the players. And his calm, professorial demeanor stabilized a young team during their developing years.  By all accounts, Murray was and is a fine person and a good hockey mind.  But by December, it was clear the Kings were struck on offense and lacked passion. Murray had taken the team as far as he was capable of.

Darryl Sutter, Murray’s replacement, came in and immediately changed the dynamic of the team. By demanding more accountability from his players (star defenseman Drew Doughty was the subject of a Sutter-esque rant when the former was caught watching television between periods of a game), Sutter set a tone: no exceptions, no excuses.  Sutter also installed a more aggressive style, including a consistent and frequent forecheck and more strategic attitude. The Kings took a several days to adjust to the change, and then started winning.  A team that was just one game over .500 when Murray was fired went 25-13-11 under Sutter, and then 16-4 in the playoffs.

What’s the lesson?
The first lesson is – Just because a manager was good at one time doesn’t mean they’re the right person today.   Time and circumstances change – we’ve seen fundamental and structural change in business in the past four years.  It’s likely your business is substantially different today than it was 4 years ago.  Have your managers adapted as well?  Adapting to change is critical for management and leadership success.

A second lesson is in management style.  Some managers are capable of starting and developing a team from scratch, and others are better suited for taking an existing team to the next level.
The most success I ever had as a manager came when I took over an existing team of sales people in 1996. The team was good but not great. I was able to take the team to the next level, and they became the top sales team in the company. It’s a lesson I’ve seen through my career.

When was the last time you identified your current needs and criteria for your company that’s aligned with a serious business strategy?  And then when did you ensure those needs were in sync with the capabilities of  your management team?

By the way, one of the best stories I’ve heard was seriously underreported by the press.  After the Kings won the cup, team owner Philip Anschutz personally called Terry Murray to inform him he was going to receive a Stanley Cup ring.  A class move that shows the Kings understood and appreciated the value Murray brought to the team.

#2:  The Trade for Jeff Carter
By February 23, the Kings were playing better but still not scoring goals.  General Manager Lombardi then traded one of his young star defensemen, Jack Johnson, to Columbus for winger Jeff Carter.
This was a gamble.  Carter had been essentially run out of Philadelphia due to differences with management.  And he was desperately unhappy in the hockey outpost that’s known as Columbus.  But he’d also scored 30 or more goals in his previous four seasons, including 46 in 2008-09.  His best friend, Mike Richards, had been traded to the Kings at the beginning of the season.  It was a gamble, but there was reason for hope.

Carter didn’t add much scoring during the regular season – just 6 goals and 3 assists in 16 games.  But he changed the dynamic of the team by allowing players to move into a more natural position.  For example, rookie Dwight King, who had been playing on the second line, moved down to the third line to accommodate Carter.  Other players moved into a position that was a better fit for their skills.
By the time the playoffs came, the Kings were ready.  Carter scored 8 goals and 5 assists in the 20 playoff games, including the overtime winner in game #2 of the finals.  King scored five goals in the playoffs and was a decisive physical presence on the third line.

What’s the lesson?
Do you have the right people in the right positions? 

Aligning talent with need is one of the most fundamental yet underused techniques that human resource professionals’ or executives have at their disposal.

In businesses I work with, we first take a look at the overall business strategy, and then I have each manager rank employees based on employee skill set as it pertains to the needs of the job.  Smaller businesses today need nimble, agile employees who are capable of multi-tasking and enjoy performing diverse tasks.  Larger companies need employees who are skilled at individual positions. 

But every company must constantly re-assess their business strategy and needs with the employees who are doing those jobs.  And then, executives can’t be afraid to make the moves necessary to strengthen the team and better align skills and needs.

#3:  The Kings Went Without Significant Injury Throughout the Playoffs
You might think these sounds like a reason that could only apply to a sports team and not a business. 

You’d be wrong.

Larry Robinson is a winner.  A hall-of-famer player and former NHL head coach, Robinson was named the 24th greatest player in NHL history by The Hockey News.  He won the Stanley Cup six times as a defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens; as a Coach, he won the Stanley Cup as both as Assistant Coach and then Head Coach of the New Jersey Devils.

When he was the Head Coach for the Kings in the late 1990’s, I asked him what the most critical component necessary to win the Stanley Cup.  His surprising response was, “keeping the team healthy for the entire season and playoffs”.

During the 2012 playoff run, the Kings only suffered one injury, when fourth-line winger Kyle Clifford suffered a concussion in the opening series against Vancouver.  Other than that, no player missed any significant playing time due to injury.  In fact, the Kings played the same six defensemen in every game of the playoffs – a feat that hadn’t been done for 30 years.

What’s the lesson?
I’d never thought of the importance of a healthy team to business success until Robinson mentioned it.  But think about it – if you’re constantly replacing employees, you’ll never achieve the momentum and consistency needed for sustainable success in business.  Turnover – especially involuntary turnover – is a killer for any business.  Many businesses have the mentality that “we can always get better employees if someone doesn’t work out”.  That may be true – and there are always people who are willing and in some cases, able, to step up.  But the never ending process of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding takes executive focus away from the success of the business; not to mention the significant costs involved.

There is a real need for business today to focus on engagement. That means understanding why you’re hiring, who you’re hiring, and then developing and nourishing a culture where talented individuals can thrive and contribute – and stay long enough to make the impact necessary for everyone’s success.  Don’t get your employees injured – get good people and keep them healthy!

#4: Your Best Players Have To Be Your Best Players
Every sportscaster beat this line to death during the playoffs.  But it happens to be true.  In business, think of it as the old 80/20 rule: 80% of your success is attributable to 20% of your talent.
The Kings’ biggest goals were scored by their best players – Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.  That’s not to denigrate huge contributions by others.  And every Kings player points to one reason the Kings won the Stanley Cup – goaltender Jonathan Quick.  Quick, who carried the team on his 26-year-old shoulders during the regular season, was ridiculously good during the playoffs, with 1.41 goals against average and a .946 save percentage.  Quick was named the Conn Smythe winner for the most outstanding player in the playoffs.

So the Kings best players were their best players.

What’s The Lesson?
What about your players?  Who are your best players, and who are your high potential players for the future?  Do each of your managers know who they are, and what – strategically – are you doing to develop them for the future?

The challenge in today’s business environment is that your best employees can always find a job elsewhere.  The last thing you want is to have them (or your high potentials) get up and leave.  These are your leaders.  Good companies develop special programs to train, develop, and ensure their success.  They frequently conduct ‘stay interviews’ to see what makes those employees engaged and satisfied.  You rely on your best players.  Don’t just hope they stay – make sure they stay.

#5: Adversity Breeds Success
One of my favorite maxims in business is that adversity breeds success.  If your managers and executives know it, they can use it to their advantage.

The Kings certainly have known adversity throughout their history.  One of many people who have had to deal with that over the years is Luc Robitaille.  Now the President of Business Operations for the Kings, Robitaille was a star player for the organization from 1986 to 1994, then from 1997-2001, and finally from 2003 until his retirement in 2006.

Robitaille had his share of adversity. In addition to playing – and never winning – during his Kings career, he was never supposed to be an NHL player.  Due to a (perceived) lack of skating ability, he was selected all the way down in the 9th round of the 1984 entry level draft – the 171st player taken.  Robitaille proved everyone wrong – he was the 1986 Calder Trophy winner as rookie-of-the-year.  No player at at his position (left wing) – in the history of the sport – has scored more goals than Luc.  He was selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.

I had a brief chat with Luc during Game #3 of the finals.  He was slightly preoccupied but told me that the years of losing would make the Stanley Cup even sweeter, more desirable and intense for Kings’ fans.  (During one of his stints away from the Kings, he won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.)  His point was that Los Angeles fans could truly appreciate winning the cup after 45 years of adversity.  He was right.  And the players fed off the hunger of the fans.  Veteran sports journalists repeatedly said they had never heard a Los Angeles sports venue louder than during the playoff run. 

Barry Melrose, the former Kings’ coach and now ESPN commentator, made a number of insightful points about the Kings during the playoffs.  At one point he was asked if it would help by having three players in their lineup who had previously won the Stanley Cup.  Melrose was emphatic.  “No,” he said.  “It’s more important that the Kings have five players who made it to the finals and lost.  They know what it’s like, having been so close and not winning.  Those will be the leaders.”

What’s The Lesson?
Adversity doesn’t breed contempt; if managed properly, it can breed more success than you thought possible.  Great leaders don’t avoid or fear trouble; they embrace it.  In sports, championship teams often become more closely bound during a losing streak (such as the Kings).  Many great coaches know this and use it to their advantage.

The path to greatness almost always must go through some adversity.  Once a team – whether it be your team or the Los Angeles Kings – hits a snag in the road, it’s up to the leader to direct them out and towards success.  Dean Lombardi and Daryl Sutter did just that, along with players who had character and attitude and the core values instilled in them by Terry Murray.

I was at Staples Center during the decisive Game 6 of the finals.  There was nothing close about the game; the Kings were ahead 3-0 after the first period and cruised to a 6-1 win.  During the third period, I kept looking around in disbelief.  I first got my season seats in 1987.  After 25 years of season seats and spending 40 of my 50 years expecting the Kings to lose, it was a surreal scene.  One fan said he kept trying to see where Rod Serling was.  A team with a history of losing and with no expectation of success had won the Stanley Cup.

The leadership decisions the Kings made changed their culture and won a championship.    Culture doesn’t just happen; it must be intentional.  These are the decisions that transformed the Kings – and that also can transform your business.