Dave Branam was our next door neighbor, growing up on Main Street in Adel. As a young boy, I used to watch men and women come home from work, (it usually meant supper was soon to be served) and most folks came home looking like they did when they went to work.
Not Dave Branam. Dave went to work looking clean, but came home always covered with dirt and grease from head to toe. I thought maybe he worked at a rodeo, as he looked like he’d been thrashed about and tossed in the mud when he came home in the evening.
“Why does Dave come home covered with grease and dirt from head to toe?” I asked my Dad.
“Dave does the dirty work so others can do what they set out to do,” my Dad replied.
I didn’t understand what this meant and inquired further.
“Dave runs a welding shop north of town. Farmers come in with broken tractors and wagons that can’t carry the load and Dave has to be able to fix these things on the spot so the farmers can get their crops out of the fields. If he’s not helping the farmers, he’s out helping truckers that have broken down and his job is to get them back on the road again,” my Dad explained.
“It is hard, dirty work and there’s a lot of pressure on Dave, but if he doesn’t get this work done, the farmers and truckers can’t do their job.
Who’s stepping forward to do the dirty work in your company?
I’m not talking about menial work, or busy work or even work that maintains the status quo.
I’m not talking about illegal, immoral or unethical acts when I use the word dirty.
I’m talking about stepping into difficult, uncomfortable situations, where a good outcome isn’t guaranteed. It’s been a hot potato or a reoccurring drama for some time but it’s preventing your business from really performing well. Customers begin to doubt whether you can deliver on your promises.
We’ve all heard discussions that go on forever, people defending themselves and at the end of the conversation, nobody has taken ownership for the dirty issue. The problems still exist and the can is kicked down the road again for another day.
I hear this in executive briefings, leaders describing problems with long histories and legacies but when pressed to account for it, people reply, “nobody wants to touch that issue”, as if it will go away on its own.
Sometimes these dirty issues, those that really must be dealt with are the result of a business restructuring or realignment. With patience and probing questions I learn that many leaders feel; well if we wait long enough, this dirty work might just blow over and we’ll do things differently again (and perhaps more in our comfort zone).
Are you leading the way and stepping into your company’s dirty work? If you don’t, who will?
Leadership is messy work. From time to time it’s about getting dirty.
If you’re wearing a nice shirt or jacket I’m not talking about dirty as in physical dirt.
I’m talking about dirty work as in pinpointing the things in your business that are mission critical, yet the outcomes are anything but clear and safe. There is uncertainty and risk involved and there may be pain and emotion wrapped around it.
That’s not comfortable work. It’s the work that leaders must address if they want to run successful businesses, create followers and delight customers.
Getting your hands dirty doesn’t mean managing in an aggressive way, micro managing or doing everything yourself.
It’s about having the courage to step into dirty work, because it needs to be done for the team, your business or your customers.
We aren’t always successful when we tackle dirty work. Yet we create our leadership brand that defines what we mean when we call ourselves a leader.
There are three areas where unaddressed dirty work can clog up high performance:
What’s the nature of your strategic conversation? Is it clean and diplomatic, meaning people tip-toe around and avoid getting dirty?
Are you strategic conversations about numbers (clean) or do you get into the contradictions and trade-offs and resource planning that’s dirty work but necessary for an effective strategy?
When you share your strategy with your customers, how do they feel?
How are your key collaborations really working? Are you politely tolerating others (and they to you) or are you proactively working to address difficult relationships that impact your business?
Who are you helping and holding back, regarding your internal partners? How much time to you spend in your functional partner’s business to understand how you can help them be successful?
When you hear people talking about others in your company in a negative light, do you confront them or walk away without addressing it?
Roles & Responsibilities
Have you recently gone through a restructuring and feel you got the short end of the deal, putting your own interests in front of the company’s interests?
Do you tend to put a lot of energy into your function and avoid those you don’t work well with?
Are you working hard to fulfill the role that’s expected of you?
All of the above areas are fertile ground for getting into the dirty work. Addressing dirty work isn’t about pointing out blame, it’s about claiming it, naming it as dirty work and then setting out to clean it up.
It’s not necessary to come home, covered with grease – yet as a leader, don’t let unaddressed dirty work get rubbed into the fabric of your company culture.
Go after dirty work. That’s why they call this leadership.
dirty hands image from istock 108226891