April 2, 2014

The Whac-A-Mole Management Trap

By Lon Cunninghis

Do you remember the arcade game Whac-A-Mole? Little moles pop up at random from holes on a board, and the player’s job is to hit them directly on the head with a mallet to force them back into their holes. The more moles you hit, the faster they pop up.

Over the past few years, I have noticed more and more leaders adopting a style that I call Whac-A-Mole management. Rather than proactively lead the organization, they respond and react to constant interruptions by their bosses, teams, co-workers, clients, and electronic media. While donning your proverbial superhero costume and putting out fires (or whacking moles) offers a bit of an adrenaline rush, you’ll eventually recognize that you go home every night exhausted and have done actually very little to advance your business, team, or results.

After decades of consulting and coaching top sales leaders around the globe, I’ve identified five strategies to help you start leading proactively.

1. Create an early-warning system.

Pay attention to your critical success factors (CSFs). They include, for example, funnel or pipeline activity, deal progression, appointment activity, new-opportunity deal size, early contract-renewal rates, or deal slippage. Ideally, you will measure and monitor each one in a metrics dashboard. Learn to see each CSF as a leading indicator. It is critical to monitor what’s coming down the pike rather than react to patterns as they emerge as problems.

2. Ensure the sanctity of team meetings, inspections, and coaching.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen leaders cancel or postpone team meetings or coaching sessions when “moles” pop up. If they haven’t cancelled the meeting, they spend it with one eye on the screen and one hand on the keyboard. These meetings should be sacred. When employees don’t have enough meaningful contact with the boss, they begin to hear the negative voices in their heads say, “He/She doesn’t appreciate you.” As a leader, your job is to lead your team. A disciplined approach to inspecting and coaching on a regular basis enables you to monitor progress and confirm or correct your leading indicators.

3. Have a rapid-response strategy for complex issues.

Of course you’ll always have problems and challenges. When a complex issue pops up that can’t be resolved quickly (e.g., when key clients decide to go out for a bid instead of automatically renewing their contracts), I recommend the following approach:

  • Call a meeting for all stakeholders or their designees (with full decision-making authority).
  • Discuss the issue.
  • Agree and document actions to create accountability.
  • Lather, rinse, and repeat until the issue is resolved.

4. Conduct quarterly alignment sessions.

Most businesses today run on quarterly cycles, especially public companies. Leaders should run their businesses quarterly, as well. Since most teams work remotely and see each other only a few times per year, a two-day meeting in person once a quarter is critical to helping support the team’s development and trust. Meetings should include such topics as the past quarter’s results; requirements for the upcoming quarter; and communication on measurement, incentives, and rewards for achieving success.

5. Take a vacation.

Have you ever been surprised by how many issues are magically resolved when you take a vacation, put up an out-of-office message, and don’t check email or voicemail? It’s both liberating and good for your mental and physical health. Good leaders have taught the team to fish so that team members are not too reliant on the leader to solve every issue or achieve results.

Unfortunately, it’s easy and common today to fall into the trap of being a reactive leader; however, being purely reactive will quickly lead to performance issues as you fail to adequately steer your business. When you don’t provide the coaching, leadership, and support the team expects and needs from you, it impacts morale. Regardless of how hard you work and how many moles you whack, your results will not fundamentally improve.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Stop playing Whac-A-Mole and get out there and lead!